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Prepare for the explosion of the ‘digital universe’

By Ben Flanagan

It’s not often that a news story makes you want to empty your inbox. But that was the case last week, when it emerged that the ‘digital universe’ – that is, all the electronically stored information across the world – is growing faster than previously thought.


Everything from our emails to personal bank records now add up to a collective 281 exabytes (281 billion gigabytes) of information, which is 10 per cent more than previously thought. There’s no way to visualise that, but needless to say you’d need a lot of iPods to store it all.


The research, sponsored by EMC Corporation, also found the digital universe is expected to grow by almost 60 per cent a year to a projected 1.8 zettabytes (1,800 exabytes) by 2011.


Panicking at the thought of some sort of unimaginable crisis, I deleted some old emails, and emptied the recycle bin on my computer. A more sinister finding is that our ‘digital shadow’ – the amount of information generated about us – is now greater than the amount of data we actively create. Other people know more about you than you know about yourself.


Every minutia of our lives is stored electronically; both voluntarily (such as in the use of social networking sites Facebook, MySpace, etc) and not (witness the growth of CCTV surveillance and the fact that all of our mobile phone conversations are logged).


But despite the consequent dilemma over civil liberties, there is also the question of how and where we are going to store all of the information.


EMC proposes three main imperatives for IT organisations looking to handle the explosion in size of the digital universe. First, they must spearhead the development of information governance, to cover information security, retention and access. Secondly, new tools and standards must be introduced to improve efficiency of such storage. And lastly, firms must remember that the problem is not confined to the realm of the ‘techie’ alone: all parts of a business must be geared towards efficient data storage.


So, while you don’t really need to delete your emails, the increasing size of the digital universe means that you do need to start thinking about how best to store them.