How many gigabytes in a a zettabyte and why you need to know

Because if you can't handle zettabytes, what will you do with yotta- xona- and vundabytes?

On Monday Gartner, Inc. released a report predicting consumers would be hoarding a global total of 4.1 zettabytes worth content by 2016.

I'm sure Gartner's math was accurate, but most of us don't really have a handle on how big a zettabyte really is.

In previous computing eras we only had to really have a feel for the real disk-space size of a couple of major measurements at a time. In the paleosilithic era, nomadic proto-geeks used kilobytes and megabytes to measure the size of their hard drives (and "floppy drives," though this might have been the result of anxiety or heavy drinking, both of which are known to cause otherwise firm drives to droop).

In more recent eras we used gigabytes and terabytes, with the occasional petabyte thrown in to make it seem as if we were ahead of our time.

In the petabyte era (a term that became obsolete 15 minutes after it was covered in Wired in June of 2008), individual personal computing devices may have 1,024 terabytes or more of storage space on board, or, more likely, 1,024 terabytes available in a mix of onboard and cloud-based storage.

That will force those of us who insist on staying current enough on new technology to be able to identify it in taste tests to learn a whole series of other terms, all of which reflect an order-of-magnitude leap in size over the previous one, several of which might be in use at any one time.

Zettabytes, yottabytes, xonabytes and vundabytes, for example.

The problem is that those of us who grew up with mega-, giga- and terabytes have a good feel for how much space they describe, how much stuff we could put on a drive (hard, soft or thumb) with that much space, and how many of one metric fits into another.

The same is not true of zettabytes, yottabytes or vundabytes.

Next generation data metrics: More odd names, even huger piles of data

Fortunately the web has come to the rescue in the form of ConvertUnits.com, a slightly academic-feeling site that will convert any size of data-measurement unit to another instantly and for free.

The pull-down boxes on the main site only list measurement units up through petabyte, but the ConvertUnits home page is a kind of catchall that lets you plug in any two of the metric, date, salary, molecular weight and storage-space measurement units the site supports and it will do the conversion for you.

For the record, there are more measurement units floating around the computer industry than are officially accepted as units of scientific notation within the International System of Units (SI).

ConvertUnits can handle anything that shows up under standard lists of prefixes for "binary powers of 10," from which most of the metric prefixes were culled.

Unfortunately most of the measurement references only go up to vundabytes, which is terribly restrictive.

Here, from 2003, is a set of suggestions from Ph.D. and retired U.S. Army mathematician/computer scientistJames Blowers for a set of prefixes extending all the way beyond "vunda" (10 23) to "luma" (10 63) and all the way down to "lunto" (10 -63).

How to convert odd and unusual units of measure

There are other conversion sites, too, of course. OnlineUnitConversion happily calculates that one centimeter equals 10,000,000,000,000,002,048 zeptometers, which is fine if you can remember to replace "meters" with "bytes" when you paste the results.

It runs out of steam when you try to convert centimeters to zettameters (equals zero?), let alone quexameters, sortameters or mingameters.

It does offer to convert plenty of odd measurement units, though. The rood (0.0020401 mile), the miglio (0.8037797 mile) and the li (0.2699784 mile), for example.

It also converts my personal favorite measurement unit of length, the smoot (5 feet, 7 inches, or 1.7018 meter), which was first measured by MIT fraternity guys in 1958 by curling 5-foot, 7-inch then-pledge Oliver R. Smoot up into a ball and rolling him from one end of the Massachusetts Ave. bridge between Boston and Cambridge to the other.

The distance from Boston to MIT, it turned out, was a charming 364.4 smoots, plus or minus one ear, (620.1 meters).

The MIT frat boys painted one mark on the sidewalk for each revolution of the Smoot, distance markers the city of Boston repainted every couple of years until 1987, when it tore up the sidewalks on the bridge to lay down new cement. Rather than marking the slabs every six inches as usual, the construction company made each slab 5'7" long to preserve the concept of measurement by smoot.

(Oliver Smoot, by the way, built a whole career on measurement. He spent two years as president of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), was executive VP of the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade association that, among other things, promotes standardized measurements within the computer industry. He was also Chairman of the Board of the American National Standards Institute, which creates, promotes and enforces the consistency of measurement standards. He did not win a Nobel Prize; that was his cousin, George Smoot, an astrophysicist/cosmologist at Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory and UCal Berkeley who won for research on cosmic radiation that is a residue of the Big Bang. Here is George talking about the design of the universe at the 2008 TED conference; he didn't measure it in smoots.)

ConvertUnits.com also does odder measures, including this page that converts an ell (a medieval version of the Old Testament-era cubit) to zeptometer (one 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 th of a meter (1 * 10 -21), though the odds that you'll need it are slim unless you're building an Ark with very, very, very tight manufacturing tolerances.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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