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Getting Your Head Around Petabytes

I can always count on my children to inspire and inform me on matters of technology.  Usually this is about the latest thing in social networking or consumer electronics.  Sometimes I can blow them away with my knowledge.  “Wow, Dad knows stuff!”

It is spring break in Arizona.  My son, a college sophomore, was home from Northern Arizona University.  He wanted to get back to NAU early so he could have fun with classmates.  We stopped at Costco on the way out of Phoenix for a few things.  As we walked by the electronics section I chuckled and said “Can you believe you can now get a terabyte of HDD for about 100 bucks these days?”  We got him a 1.5 TB external HDD for Christmas for about $150.

He pondered that comment a bit and then asked me “What’s the next thing after terabyte?” I answered that it was petabyte – 1,000 times more or 1024 in binary.  He shook his head in amazement.  “I just cannot get my head around the concept of petabyte, Dad.”

Several times on the drive up to Flagstaff he kept coming back to the topic of petabyte.  I explained to him that our first home PC in 1993 had an 80 MB HDD and we thought that was huge.  About 10 years later the industry was delivering HDD in the GB range.  Today an inexpensive netbook has 250GB HDD.  You can buy 1TB external HDD for about $100.  He said that seems to grow at a faster rate than the binary progression of discrete memory – Flash and DRAM.  I explained it is a different technology than semiconductors and that the HDD industry keeps coming up with innovations that keep that trend going.  He just shook his head and said it hurt trying to get his head around how much a petabyte was.

“I can’t imagine what you would need all that storage for.”

I laughed as only a father can when teaching his son a life lesson.  “People have been saying that for years, even way back in the day of MB HDDs.  You will be surprised how quickly HDDs get filled.”

“How long before we see petabyte HDDs for about the same prices as today?”  I said it would probably be in about 10 years, maybe sooner.

“Yeah, but Dad, what stuff will take up that much storage?”  I thought that was a good question, but I had no immediate answer.

Later that night driving home to Phoenix, I kept coming back to my son’s question.  What will be the reason for petabyte sized mass storage in about 10 years?  I got home too late to see my favorite TV comedies, so I watched them on the DVR.

It hit me – 3D video!

Just recently 3D TVs have hit the stores.  The highest grossing film in history is “Avatar” known for its ground breaking 3D film technology – never mind the script or anything else, that’s a separate discussion.  At the rate technology develops it is most likely that 3D video will be fairly common in 10 years.  One has to imagine that this will increase the amount of data required dramatically.  It will not be only commercially available video but also user generated content.

A petabyte is 10 to the 15th power for HDD and 1024 to the 5th power for binary which is slightly bigger than the decimal value.  What’s after petabyte?  It is exabyte – 10 to the 18th power.  OK, now I have trouble getting my head around that.

Tony Massimini
Semico Research Corp.

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