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March 14, 2008

Here a Byte, There a Byte

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

Ever try to get a handle on the terms megabyte or gigabyte? I hear people discuss these electronic yardsticks in normal conversation these days. Some know what they mean, but I feel that few really have a handle on how dang much information there really is in a gigabyte.

First a refresher.

A byte is a unit of data storage. Technically a byte stores 8 bits of information on a modern computer. (Though a byte is not always 8 bits. There were 5, 6, 7 and even 10 bit bytes at one time or another.)

Through the mystery of binary math, there are 256 possible combinations of the 8 bits in a byte, meaning that a byte can store values from 0 up to 255. Most commonly in a computer, those values represent a character. So the text bellybutton requires 11 bytes of computer storage.

By itself a byte is fairly useless. Early computers came with hundreds of bytes of storage. Eventually that number increased to thousands of bytes. To quickly express that quantity, the term kilobyte (K or KB) was used. Kilo comes from the Greek word χιλια, which means 1,000.

Sidebar. Traditionally, a kilobyte is 1,024 bytes. But most people believe it to be 1,000 bytes. That’s okay. Computer scientists use the word kibibyte to mean the value 1,024. That’s because 1024 is a binary value, 210. You can ignore this sidebar.

As computers expanded their storage, larger values were used:

After the kilobyte comes the megabyte (M or MB), about one million bytes of storage. During the 1980s computer memory was measured in kilobytes and disk storage measured in megabytes.

After the megabyte comes the gigabyte (G or GB). It’s gig with a hard G, not jig-a-byte. A gigabyte stores over one billion bytes of information. Computers in the 1990s measured memory in megabytes and disk storage in gigabytes.

We are now in the terabyte era. A terabyte (TB) stores one trillion bytes of information. You can buy terabyte hard drives. (Though most terabyte drives are simply two 500 gigabyte drives in one box.)

After terabyte comes the petabyte (PB).
After petabyte comes the exabyte (EB).
After exabyte comes the zettabyte (ZB).
After zettabyte comes the yottabyte (YB).

No, I’m not making any of that up.

Someday your grandkids (or great-great-grandkids) will be bemoaning the fact that their lousy petabyte iPod is incapable of full 3D realistic reality reproduction and why didn’t you pony up the 400 Euros to get them the 6 exabyte model instead?

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