November 30

Gigabytes…Terabytes…Petabytes…Zettabytes… We’ve talked about this before: naming units of computer memory follows a standard system of prefixes but after a certain range gets a bit informal. The common and even very large volumes we see in our digital landscape were covered for years. Until now. For the first time in 31 years the International System of Units (SI) has been expanded to include two more prefixes.

Units of Computer Memory Measurement, showing standard names followed by some very arbitrary unofficial choices for the very extreme high range of memory units.

The above image has been shared on social media for a number of years. It’s a sort of reference table of computer memory unit sizes. From the tiny bits and bytes to the gigabytes and terabytes we see familiar units of digital information. The main ones are all defined in the International System of Units (SI), a standard globally agreed upon by government reps and measurement scientists. After the exponentially-defined sizes like 1018 (exa), 1021 (zetta) and 1024 (yotta) the names get a bit unofficial. Various terms have been declared by fan groups and nerds in homage to various things. For example, the Saganbyte was suggested to be named after the popular astronomer Carl Sagan. It’s not even easy to ascertain where some of the names on the list came from and their acceptance is far from universal.

The recent change proposed to the SI comes about from very real naming problems. As our digital universe has expanded at a rapid rate it has become more common to consider Big Data volumes. With large-scale data centers blossoming and worldwide internet traffic at all time highs our advancing technological capabilities is driving conversations about data scales like nothing before. The SI will now include two new prefixes ronna and quetta. A main reason given is that areas such as data science and digital storage are already using names at the upper end, Yottabytes and Zettabytes, and will require the next level soon enough. Apologies to whatever ‘bronto-’ and ‘geop-’ were, but the 1027 and 1030 ranges are now covered officially.

How does one even get a sense of how much data these large volumes represent? The informal names are a reminded of another problem when dealing with large numbers: how hard it is for humans to comprehend the scale and just how massive the amounts are. Recent things like Exabytes and Zettabytes have only just come into more common use with Big Data discussions.

We’ve updated our list of real-world comparisons to get a better sense of the magnitudes!

purple highlighted title box: HOW BIG IS YOUR DATA - REALLY? Followed by a list of sizes: Byte: one grain of rice. Kilobyte: cup of rice. Megabyte: eight bags of rice. Gigabyte: three semi-trucks. Terabyte: two container ships. Petabyte: covers Manhattan. Exabyte: covers the U.S. west coast. Zettabyte: fill the Pacific Ocean. Yottabyte: Earth-sized ball of rice. Ronnabyte: Jupiter-sized ball of rice. Quettabyte: two Sun-sized balls of rice! Background picture is looking upwards at a stack of very high shipping containers. Hattip to David Wellman/Myriad Genetics for the original metaphor. Image by CBL Data Recovery.

In previous versions it was already hard to come up with comparable items as things are so large it doesn’t really help. While some of these are real data volumes out there right now, like the world’s total data storage is currently “only” in the Zettabyte range, this declaration is more about future-proofing. All the data being accumulated by things like generating pictures of black holes and the aforementioned large-scale storage in data centers, means Jupiter and Sun-sized data amounts are on the way…sometime.

As always, when bits, megabytes, gigabytes, terabytes and beyond are lost — we’re here to help.

Further Reading & Sources

Category: data recovery

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