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What is the Order of Computer Storage Units for Memory?

November 19, 2017

What is the Order of Computer Storage Units for Memory?

When you’re discussing storage solutions, it’s not uncommon for a client to throw around terms to discuss the potential storage capacity of a solid-state drive (SSD) or hard disk drive (HDD) that are more technical than just “big” or “small.” Whether you’re talking with an IT person or someone at the C-suite level, they’re probably going to be speaking the language of storage, and that’s a language of bits and bytes, megs and gigs.

So what’s big, and what’s small? And why are those the measurements we use to talk about drive capacity? If you want to become an authority on drive size, this will help you understand computer storage units on the most basic level. 

Bit by Bit, Byte by Byte

Computer memory all starts with zeros and ones. A language called binary is the basis of all data storage and all computing. In the binary language, a single digit is called a bit. Eight bits in succession are called a byte. In the early days of computing, these were concepts far more frequently referenced by a tech professional or coder in the day-to-day. But computing has gone through such a dramatic evolution that the average user hardly thinks of these building blocks, the way we don’t think about individual letters of the alphabet when we are discussing a great novel we read. 

From Old-School Storage to Current Standards

A sequence of 1,000 bytes (or 1,024 bytes, depending on who is doing the measuring and for what purpose) is called a kilobyte (KB). If you look on a computer drive at very small files, you will find their sizes measured in KBs. The next step up in units of file size is the megabyte, sometimes called a meg, represented as MB (1,000 KB). The size of many media files and executable files stored locally on an SSD or HDD is represented in megabytes. Audio files such as mp3s, for instance, can range in size from 2 or 3 MB to 100 or 200 MB, depending on the duration and quality of the audio. When we get into larger files, such as full movies stored in .WMV or .MOV formats, the size tends to be measured in gigabytes (GBs). One GB is 1,000 MBs and is sometimes called a gig.

To give an indication of how fast storage technology has changed, for an average consumer in 1991, the size of a hard drive could generally be measured in tens of MBs. By the late 1990s, it was not uncommon to have a few GBs of storage on a PC—though in the single digits.

The Biggest Storage in 2015

Even a decade ago, a drive with a full terabyte (TB) of storage capacity was unfathomable, with the first 500 GB drive shipping in 2005. But by 2007, the first HDD shipped with 1 TB (a full 1,000 GB of storage).

Since then, manufacturers have continued the race to increase storage capacity and have been slowly tacking on the TBs. In 2014, both an 8 TB HDD and a 10 TB HDD were released, and while SSDs tend to have slightly less storage capacity than HDDs, manufacturers are pushing the limits with them as well, with 4 TB and even 6 TB SSDs currently available.

How Big Can Storage Solutions Get?

With drives in the tens of TBs constituting the highest end of storage, it’s hard to imagine a consumer-facing drive ever reaching the size of a petabyte (PB), made up of 1,000 TBs. It’s purely science fiction to think of a drive measured in exabytes (EB) (1,000 petabytes), zetabytes (ZB) (1,000 exabytes), yottabytes (YB) (1,000 zetabytes), or even brontobytes (BB) (1,000 yottabytes).

But given how far storage technology has come over the past few decades, and how storage needs are continually increasing, we can’t truly rule out the notion that one day we will be working on our 1 BB drives, complaining that they’ve filled up with too many yottabytes of data.

And if those brontobyte drives get full, we can always hope for the roll-out of the first geopbyte SSD (1,000 brontobytes).  

What sort of top-of-the-line storage solution sizes will we see in the next 10 years?