Thursday, September 23, 2010

Buddy, Could You Spare A Petabit?

It’s always a good day when I learn a new word.  Today’s new word was PETABIT.

15th century table abacus
Frankly, the thought of it still makes my brain hurt.

Now, if you already know what a petabit is, this will all seem a bit ho-hum.  But if “petabit” does not roll trippingly off your tongue in polite regular conversation (“Hey, Clyde, how many petabits should I get?”), you’re likely not alone.

A petabit is a unit of computer storage, equal to one quadrillion binary bits. Medieval mathematicians had difficulty representing the concept of "quadrillion" on their abacuses (or abaci).  Here's why -

What does one quadrillion look like – in numbers?  Try 1,000,000,000,000,000.

That’s considerably more than the books I have on my shelves. It’s actually more digits than will fit on my hand-held pocket calculator.  If you’re still curious, take a peek here to see what a cube of one quadrillion stacked pennies would look like, compared to the Empire State Building and other notably large structures.

Anyway, according to Mark Brown’s article in Wired-UK, computer scientists in China are working on developing a six (count ‘em) SIX petabit five-inch computer hard drive.  That’s a hard drive that could store the data that now fits on 200, 000 DVDs or 500 million of those plastic floppy disks you’ve got in the bottom of your desk drawer.

500, 000, 000 floppy disks – got the picture?

Granted, these hard drives aren’t quite ready for prime time yet, but in a few more years …

Consider what this could potentially mean for family researchers.  Most of us, could never fill up more than a small fraction of a six-petabit hard drive with our own files, but what about the potential for the storage of digitized images of archival records?  Next, consider the possibilities of using such drives to create a kind of decentralized “virtual archives.”  For example, as document digitization continues apace, it’s not inconceivable to think that in not too distant future, it will be possible to store the digitized equivalent of the Family History Library’s entire microfilm collection on a small set of interconnected hard drives at every Family History Center around the world.

A few years ago, futurist Ray Kurzweil suggested that a technological “singularity” would occur in the 21st century.  It’s fun to think about the possibility of a kind of genealogical “singularity”, with instantaneously accessible self-indexing record sources, all conveniently accessible.

Oh, brave new world!

1 comment:

  1. Cool! Think of all the photos I could store on one of those!!