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Info Overload! Billions of Bytes Born

If you created 800 MBytes of new information last year, congratulations: You're as prolific as the average person on the planet.

That's according to a team of University of California at Berkeley researchers who claim there were about 5 exabytes of new information stored in print, film, magnetic, and optical storage media in 2002. And because nobody's volunteering to do a recount, we'll take their word for it.

How much is 5 exabytes? It's 5 million terabytes -- or 5,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes -- which is enough data to fill the print collections of the entire Library of Congress 500,000 times. And that's twice as much new information as was created in 1999, when the Berkeley researchers first conducted the study. The team, led by Peter Lyman and Hal Varian of UC Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems, estimated that the storage of new information has grown about 30 percent each year since 1999.

"All of a sudden, almost every aspect of life around the world is being recorded and stored in some information format," says Lyman. "It takes thoughtful people using smart technologies to figure out how to make sense of all this information."

And 5 exabytes is the amount of information stored only on physical media. The researchers discovered nearly 18 exabytes of new information flowed electronically over TV, radio, telephone, and the Internet in 2002.

In a way, this is one of those studies that state the obvious: We create a really, really lot of new data in this digital information age. But the study -- funded by EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC), Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), and Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) -- also underscores the importance of the role storage networking professionals play. After all, somebody has to manage and make sense of all this data.

"It's not just the quantity of information that is growing," says Gil Press, director of corporate information at EMC. "The information is becoming more strategic to a company. Storage managers will become more and more important, not just in IT but in the whole company. People will want their advice on how to maximize the value of information. They will be the bridge between the business side of the organization and the IT side of the organization."

Some other interesting highlights of the report:

  • Telephone networks account for the largest percentage of information flow. [Ed. note: I already knew this, because I have a teenage daughter.] Worldwide telephone calls would have contained 17.3 exabytes of data if stored in digital form, representing 98 percent of information flowing through electronic channels.
  • Email is second in information flow. About 31 billion emails are sent annually, generating about 400,000 TBytes of new information.
  • Globally, the average Internet user spends 11.5 hours online per month, but the average U.S. user spends more than twice that amount online: 25 hours and 25 minutes at home and 74 hours and 26 minutes at work.
  • The Internet is the fastest-growing new medium of all time. The volume of information on the Web grew from between 20 and 50 TBytes in 1999 to 167 TBytes in 2003. There are about 2.9 million active Weblogs, containing a total 81 GBytes of text.
  • A paperless society? Forget it. Thanks largely to email and office printers, information printed on paper increased 36 percent between 1999 and 2002.
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