Computing technology is constantly getting better, faster, and more capable. As humans develop new ways to fit more power into smaller spaces, new words are needed to categorize these huge capacities as they relate to digital storage. On the upper end of today’s digital storage scale is the exabyte (EB). Today, we are going to learn about the exabyte in order to understand what it really equates to. Let’s get started!
What Is an Exabyte?
An exabyte is a unit of digital storage that is equal to a billion gigabytes (GB). This unit of digital data storage is extremely vast, and humans have only just begun to need it as a measurement in modern storage.
When we need to store something, we generally resort to closets or boxes. For units of measurement, we usually rely on volume measurements such as cubic feet or square footage (or cubic meters for the rest of the world). In the computing world, measuring capacity by volume doesn’t really make sense. Instead, things are measured by the smallest units commonly used, things known as bytes.
In the early days of computing, measuring data and digital storage via bytes was fine, but as we’ve greatly expanded our ability to fit more digitals storage into smaller places, using bytes to measure things is kind of like using inches to measure distances in outer space; you can do it, but it’s probably not a good idea.
As things have expanded, new measurements like a “kilo” byte (1000 bytes) and a “giga” byte (1,048,576 kilobytes) have been put forward to help us out. Twenty years ago, using a measurement like an exabyte was purely theoretical, but today, that just isn’t the case. An exabyte is a way to measure digital storage, and currently, one of the largest units that humans have regular need of.
Comparing an Exabyte
For quick reference, here’s a list of the digital units (in binary) all the way up to an exabyte:
- Bit (the smallest common measurement in computing)
- Byte (eight bits)
- Kilobyte (1024 bytes)
- Megabyte (1024 Kilobytes)
- Gigabyte (1024 Megabytes)
- Terabyte (1024 Gigabytes)
- Petabyte (1024 Terabytes)
- Exabyte (1024 Petabytes)
As you can see, an exabyte is so astronomically large that it is a full three positions away from the most commonly used data measurement for most people today, the gigabyte. In order to understand how much data this really is, we need to resort to some silly comparisons.
For reference, a single gigabyte of storage could hold enough data to fill around 500,000 sheets of paper, depending on what sorts of things you are putting on it. Scaling up, a terabyte (which is around 1000 gigabytes in standard decimal) can store 1000X that, which is 500 million sheets of paper.
Scaling up again, a petabyte could store around 500,000,000,000 (500 billion) sheets of paper. Scaling up AGAIN and we have the exabyte, which could store 500,000,000,000,000 (500 trillion) sheets of paper.
For reference, a single gigabyte can hold around 100 Webster’s Dictionaries, meaning if an exabyte of data were converted into dictionaries, it would contain 100,000,000,000 (100 billion) of them and weigh 150 million tons (3 lbs per dictionary).
What Are Exabytes Used for?
Individuals don’t really have a use for exabyte-level storage. Most of the things that we do only require gigabytes of data at a time.
In some cases, having a terabyte of storage can be useful for content creators and gamers with large libraries, but no home computer reasonably needs a petabyte of storage. In fact, a home computer couldn’t even FIT a petabyte of storage in a single case.
In the context of server centers and cloud computing, however, exabytes are necessary to describe the massive amounts of data that are stored, processed, and transmitted every day. For example, in the world of cloud computing, data is stored in server centers and accessed by millions of users through the internet.
This data can include everything from personal emails, to business records, to massive collections of scientific data (and even the movies you stream on Netflix!). In order to keep up with the demand for storage and processing power, companies have to continually upgrade their server centers and cloud computing systems to handle larger and larger amounts of data.
This is why exabytes have become an important unit of measurement in the world of data, as they help to accurately describe the truly massive scale of modern data storage and processing. All estimates here are a guess, but some sources claim that ALL of Google’s data centers combined have a total storage capacity of around 10-15 exabytes.
This includes all of the Google Images library online, everyone’s photos and videos stored using Google Photos, every company and individual that stores data on Google Drive or Cloud, and more. Other data-centric companies like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure likely have a similar capacity.