Study: 161 Exabytes of Digital Data in 2006

A new study by IDC (commissioned by backup storage vendor EMC) took on the heady task of estimating how much digital data had been generated by the year 2006…and then tried to forecast how much digital data might occupy our collective “universe” by 2010. The results: in 2006, the world’s digital universe comprised some 161 exabytes—an exabyte is a billion gigabytes—and by 2010 the amount could reach 988 exabytes.

“The incredible growth and sheer amount of the different types of information being generated from so many different places represents more than just a worldwide information explosion of unprecedented scale,” said John Gantz, IDC’s Chief Research Officer and Senior Vice President. “It represents an entire shift in how information has moved from analog form, where it was finite, to digital form, where it’s infinite. From a technology perspective, organizations will need to employ ever-more sophisticated techniques to transport, store, secure and replicate the additional information that is being generated every day.”

In The Expanding Digital Universe: A Forecast of Worldwide Information Growth Through 2010, IDC points out that 2006’s 161 exabytes of data is equivalent to about three million times the information contained in all the books which have ever been written, or the equivalent of 12 stacks of books stretching from the Earth to the sun. (Of course, depending on image compression technology, a typical image can use considerably more data than a thousand words. And let’s not get into digital audio and video content!) IDC also estimates that nearly 70 percent of the digital data in use by the year 2010 will be generated by individuals, but governments, corporations, institutions, and other organizations will be responsible for the security, privacy, reliability, and compliance of at least 85 percent of that information.

IDC also found that images are by far the largest component of the current digital universe: the company found more than 150 billion images were captured on digital still cameras worldwide in 2006, and expects that number to exceed 500 billion by 2010. Similarly, IDC expects use of digital camcorders to double between now and 2010.

Email also represented a major source of ata, with the number of mailboxes growing from 253 million in 1998 to nearly 1.6 billion in 2006. (And to think virtually none of my own mailboxes have changed in that time!) In the same timeframe, the number of email messages sent grew three times faster than the number of people using email (yay spam!) and by 2006 six exabytes of data in the digital universe (just under 4 percent of the total) was just email from one person to another.

Perhaps one of the more interesting findings of the IDC study is that the rate of data creation is beginning to exceed the supply of places to store that information. IDB estimates that the world had about 185 exabytes of storage last year compared to 161 of data in the universe; however, by 2010 IDC estimates we’ll be coping with 988 exabytes of data but only have 601 exabytes in storage. Fortunately, a good deal of digital data we create is ephemeral (or at least we hope it’s ephemeral) like phone calls, log files, unwanted snapshots, and, of course, spam.

If you’re wondering what unit name we’ll be dealing with in 2011 when the digital universe exceeds 1,000 exabytes (EB)…that’d be a zettabyte (ZB). And a thousand zettabytes is a yottabyte (YB). No kidding.