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Zettabytes Now Needed to Describe Global Data Overload

Humankind will generate over one sextillion bytes of digital information this year, surging into the realm of the "zettabyte" as we create ever more electronic data.

In 2010, 1.2 zettabytes of digital information will be created, according to a new "Digital Universe" study from IDC sponsored by IT firm EMC Corporation.

A zettabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes (that's 21 zeroes for those counting).

A byte is a unit typically consisting of eight "binary digits," or bits. Bits are either a one or a zero and represent the basic building blocks of digital information.

For a comparison, an MP3 song file is about five megabytes, or five million bytes (six zeroes), and a gigabyte – a still decent-sized chuck of information at about 200 songs – is a billion bytes, or nine zeroes.

Put another way, one zettabyte equals one trillion gigabytes, or a playlist of approximately four-minute-long MP3s – assuming about a megabyte per minute – that might last you until the year 1,902,589,529 give or take a few thousand thousand millennia if you opt more for two-minute Ramones tunes versus Tool prog-rock opuses.

Gone digital

The rapid expansion of this digital universe is courtesy of the boom in recent years of online video sites such as YouTube, social networking sites such as Facebook, plus reams of digital photography stored at Flickr and cell phone-produced data piles.

Even during the recession of 2009, the glut of digital information expanded 62 percent over the previous year to 800 billion gigabytes.

As we officially enter the zettabyte era, we leave behind last year's 800 exabyte-mark (a quintillion bytes, or 18 zeroes), blow past the petabyte (a quadrillion, or 15 zeroes), and trounce the terabyte (a trillion, or 12 zeroes).

Zetta what?

According to the study, and as one might have guessed, 1.2 zettabytes is a heck of a lot of data.

A zettabyte-plus would just fit on 75 billion of the 16 gigabyte-version of Apple's iPad. If all these tablet computers were jammed together, they would fill the Dallas Cowboys' new monster stadium all the way up to the dome enclosure almost 16 times.

Or, taking these same iPads, you could stuff the 17-mile long tunnel of CERN's Large Hadron Collider like a sausage link 151 times over.

Another stab at conceptualizing the data humankind will make this year: If all 6.8 billion people on Earth, from newborns to Methuselahs joined Twitter and continuously tweeted for a century, they could crank out a zettabyte of data.

And don't expect the data deluge to dry up: The study predicts that the annual amount of bytes we collectively produce will jump 44-fold over the next decade.

A big factor in this flood heading into 2020 will be the changeover of major forms of media, including voice, television, radio and print from analog to digital.

Giving all this data a home will be a challenge, EMC said in a press release, as some 35 percent more digital information is created today than there is capacity to actually store it. The figure will breach 60 percent in just a few years.

After the prefix zetta- comes "yotta," and indeed that will be a whole yotta data. •    How to Preserve Your Digital Photos and Videos … Forever •    'Hella' Proposed as Official Big Number •    Library of Congress to House Entire Twitter Archive

Adam Hadhazy is a contributing writer for Live Science and He often writes about physics, psychology, animal behavior and story topics in general that explore the blurring line between today's science fiction and tomorrow's science fact. Adam has a Master of Arts degree from the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Boston College. When not squeezing in reruns of Star Trek, Adam likes hurling a Frisbee or dining on spicy food. You can check out more of his work at