The world of computing has a lot of names and nomenclature that can sound a bit silly, but most of the time, silly names mean something! Computing today is all based around data, and many of the systems that we use are built around access to absolutely staggering amounts of data.
One of the larger data measurements that humans have come up with is the petabyte. Today, we are going to be taking a look at the petabyte and learning all we can about it, particularly how much data it represents. Let’s get started!
What Is a Petabyte in Computing?
A petabyte (PB) is a measurement unit of digital storage that represents a massive amount of data. It is equivalent to 1,000 terabytes, or 1,000,000 gigabytes.
Computer storage has come a long way over the decades. In the early stages of computer storage, it would take entire buildings to hold the digital storage that a $5 flash drive at the store can hold today. As we’ve progressed, we’ve eventually had to come up with new names to represent new amounts of data as we approach them.
A petabyte of storage is an enormous amount of space that could store billions of pages of text if it were physical and millions of 4K movies. It is difficult to imagine the sheer volume of information that can be stored in a petabyte.
In order to get an understanding of how much data a petabyte represents, let’s make some comparisons.
Comparing a Petabyte
A petabyte is a number that is probably around the upper limit of human comprehension in regard to scale. Much larger than what humans can fathom, having difficulty giving spatial meaning to abstract things. For humans, understanding things in the context of physical space can be helpful.
Some estimates say that a petabyte of storage, if printed digitally onto pages into text, would take up around 20 million tall filing cabinets. Within these filing cabinets would be over 500 billion pages of nothing but text.
Again, for reference, a single photo, broken into text, usually takes up around 2 megabytes (MB) of space, or around 500 pages of text. For context, it’s important to understand the other units of data measurement that we use on a daily basis. Here’s a quick list:
- 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)
As we can see, a petabyte is two units higher than a gigabyte (GB), a unit that many people are familiar with. Most movies we stream online or download are around 2GBs, while most high-quality photos we take are around 2MB.
What Systems Currently Use a Petabyte?
With how large a petabyte is, there are few systems in the world that utilize that much data. As you might imagine, the largest tech companies in the world likely measure things internally using petabytes. Google, for reference, probably has around an exabyte of data storage capacity, or 1024 petabytes, even though that is just an estimation.
Companies like Netflix, who reportedly account for 25% of all streaming data on the internet, may also measure their long-term figures in petabytes. If a movie streamed in 4K is around 6-8GB and there are millions of people streaming for at least 1-4 hours a day, Netflix would also have to measure things in petabytes.
The biggest data users in the world are likely cloud services like Microsoft Azure, Google, and AWS (Amazon Web Services). Each of these companies has absolutely massive libraries that host website data, user data, photos, videos, and almost every other piece of digital content that exists.
Whenever you access a photo online or “back up” your phone to the cloud, you are contributing to these massive piles of data! As humanity continues to push boundaries, we will continue to compile more and more data.
In the past, using measurements like 1GB sounded silly, but now, we sometimes send texts to one another that are larger than 1GB! Maybe one day in the somewhat near future we will be sending “the absolutely funniest memes” to friends that take up a petabyte of space.
What Is Larger than a Petabyte?
Currently, the petabyte is one of the highest unit measurements that humans actually utilize, but there are higher theoretical numbers that we will eventually use. These units are named by the Internation System of Units (ISU). Starting with the petabyte, here are the following units that have been officially designated:
- Petabyte (1024 Terabytes)
- Exabyte (1024 Petabytes)
- Zettabyte (1024 Exabytes)
- Yottabyte (1024 Zettabytes)
There are other names for further measurements, but they have yet to be confirmed by the ISU.
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