We — humanity, that is — created 4.4 zettabytes of data last year. This is expected to rise to 44 zettabytes by 2020. And no, I didn’t make up the word “zettabytes.” For scale, it is estimated that 42 zettabytes could store all human speech ever spoken. One zettabyte is around 250 billion DVDs — almost enough fit the whole Friends series.
All that data wouldn’t be any use to us if we couldn’t move it around quickly and reliably. We are constantly sending, receiving and streaming. We live in an age where anyone with a smart handheld device — and there are about 2.6 billion — can instantly become a video streamer. This large count doesn’t even include big businesses and governments, most of which now do the majority of their communication digitally, adding to a prodigious amount of bits and bytes.
As connectivity continues to skyrocket, will we be able to move this data fast enough? Are we willing to pay the price to keep moving it faster and more reliably?
Current technology/wires are very fast, but our data creation and consumption is quickly catching up. Google Fiber, offering one of the fastest speeds available to regular consumers, has a transfer rate of one gigabit per second, and the Hibernia Express, a transatlantic fiber optic cable currently under construction for use in financial markets, will have a rate of 8.8 terabits per second (8800x faster than Google Fiber). So why not just go faster?
We are running up against the universal speed limit.
There are rules to the universe. Unfortunately, we don’t know all of them. What we do know is that information has a speed limit: namely, c, the speed of light. Light travels about 300,000,000 meters per second. The two cables mentioned above, Google Fiber and the Hibernia Express, are both moving data at about 2/3 c (two-thirds the speed of light), limited by the refractive properties of the glass fiber. Basically, light bounces around and slows down inside the cable.
Outside of business, milliseconds may not mean millions of dollars, but today’s consumer expectations are higher than ever. Viewers now consider instantaneous, on-demand access the norm. In this ecosystem, the word “buffering” means something has gone wrong. Slow load times for images while online shopping can mean clicking on the next site and never returning. And for the streaming service provider or the online retailer, this means dents in the bottom line.
The rate at which we create data is not going to slow down anytime soon. The advent of the Internet of Things looms on the horizon — a predicted 25 billion devices (three per person on Earth) each producing, sending and receiving data.