A heap of digital trouble


The everlasting history of humankind is apt to be a digitized rather than fossilized legacy. We’ve built a world where bits and bytes of data exist like zillions of atoms.

The sheer volume of digitized data is astounding. A recently published IDC white paper called “The Expanding Digital Universe”, sponsored by storage company EMC Corp., offers an illustration of this digital data explosion.

If a byte of data corresponded to one character on a page, researchers reckon there was enough digital data in 2006 to theoretically fill 12 stacks of small novels extending the 93 million miles from Earth to the sun. And by 2010, these 12 stacks would reach from the sun to Pluto and back.

The report estimates that electronic business information accounts for about 25 percent of the world’s digital data. By 2010, IDC expects this to grow to 30 per cent – a result of greater use of computing systems by smaller business, regulations that will mandate data archiving and privacy, plus the increasing digitization of data from more processes such as medical imaging, customer support information and many other things.


Like an atomic mushroom cloud, this expanding universe of digitized bits is getting out of control. It’s threatening to have a devastating impact on businesses.

The biggest problem is one of data management. More specifically, it’s the challenge faced by companies to control who views business data and to whom it’s being distributed. Privacy and security must be ensured and competitive intelligence must not be leaked.

The challenge is also one of digital data containment. Companies find they can’t enclose the ocean of digital information being gathered. The IDC report makes the point that in 2007, the volume of information created and replicated will, in fact, surpass the storage capacity available to keep it.

Storage media is expected to grow by 35 per cent a year from 2006 to 2010. Unfortunately, the volume of digital information created and replicated is expected to increase by 57 per cent a year during this same period.

Too much digital information also creates the problem of organizing it in a way that makes it useful. Many businesses have more digital data than they can intelligently work with and often can’t extract what they need when they need it or create business intelligence from it.

The truth is that the volume of digitized data may, in fact, be crippling many businesses and particularly those that are smaller. All this data is overwhelming.

Charles King, an IT market analyst and consultant in Hayward, Calif., describes the growing digital universe as the “too much of a good thing” conundrum.

“Say you love ice cream, and over time achieve a state where you can eat as much ice cream as you like. If you overindulge or eat unwisely, you might reach a point where access to all that ice cream deadens your senses or even negatively affects your health,” he says.

“A couple of years ago, people began talking about technology reaching a state where systems management costs would increasingly outweigh the costs of hardware and software,” he says. “Information management is difficult and expensive now, but the world envisioned by the (IDC) report takes our current situation down a path where businesses will be able to afford equipment to store more and more information that, in turn, will be increasingly difficult and expensive to manage.”

Without effective storage tools and strategies, businesses will reach a point where the financial and logistical burden of managing information outweighs its value to business, King says.

At that point, the value of information is diminished, if not entirely rendered useless, simply because the sheer volume of what’s being collected can’t be managed.

The situation is an even greater problem for smaller businesses that typically don’t employ full-time IT staff. Often they take an ‘out of sight, out of mind approach’ to storage management, akin to tossing things into a closet or garage.

“It only works so long as you never need access to that material,” says King. “At the point where you do, digging through the rubble, let alone sorting things out and putting them right, costs time and money that many or most small businesses find painful.”

And you’d probably need a digital archaeologist to make business sense of it.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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