Dec. 11, 2012 at 6:02 PM ET
The world is producing and storing data at such a rate that the day isn't far off when we will literally no longer have a proper way of describing it. From mega to giga to tera to peta, the prefixes we use to describe piles of bytes are starting to run out.
It seems like every year we end up having to change the go-to word meaning "lots of data." It wasn't long ago that a gigabyte was an enormous amount of space to have on your computer, and terabytes were strictly for scientists and companies like IBM.
Nowadays, a terabyte (or several) is standard for personal use, and petabytes are what we talk about when we have to make a point about the data stored by Facebook and Google. And soon those terms won't seem so big, either, as we move on to exabytes.
The problem is that after exabytes, we have zettabytes, and then yottabytes, and then — nothing. Zetta and yotta (and their submultiple counterparts, zepto and yocto) are the most extreme numerical prefixes we have. They were made official in 1991 at the 19th General Conference of Weights and Measures. Evidently they didn't foresee the need to describe anything with a greater multiple than yotta, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
Indeed, yotta-anything sounds like it should be enough. The diameter of the observable universe would be approximately just 880 yottameters, points out Jessica Leber at MIT's Technology Review — meaning if there were a bigger prefix than yotta, the entire universe would fit inside one of them.
But the International Bureau of Weights and Measures neglected to consider the needs created by the exponential increase in data storage. Individual hard drives hold terabytes; a rack of servers might have a few hundred drives, and a data center could have hundreds or thousands of racks.
We're already well into petabyte territory — in fact, Facebook claimed to store around 100 petabytes earlier this year. Add in all the datacenters belonging to Google, Flickr, Apple, and everything else, and exabytes are very much in play.
And that's just the data we've stored; We also have to consider the enormous amount of data being transferred every day on YouTube, Netflix, DropBox, and others involved with "Big Data."
Admittedly, you can always resort to one of the many actual numbers that stretch far beyond the prefix scale: A yottabyte is a septillion bytes, so if you want more, just say octillion, or nonillion, or quattuordecillion. These "dictionary numbers" can be created endlessly by combining Latin prefixes. But giga, tera, and whatever comes after yotta have to be decided on by the Bureau.
What are they likely to choose, should they convene for a 20th General Conference?
The prefixes so far have been linguistically-neutral (i.e. able to be pronounced by speakers of many languages) variants on Greek and Latin prefixes denoting various sizes and numbers. Peta, for instance, which indicates 10^15 or five sets of three zeroes, comes from the Greek word for five: πέντε, or pente. Zetta and yotta were based loosely on the Latin "septem" and "octem" respectively.
Speculators on the web suggest the next prefix will be "xenna," after the Greek "ennea" for nine, though they could also go with "nonna," "enna," or any other variation suggestive of the Greek or Latin. After that, even the speculators aren't really sure.
The problem is real, but not exactly pressing. Scientists and data specialists will make do with temporary or arbitrary terms (UC Davis students suggested "hellabytes") until the Bureau meets. And, of course, just because we don't have a word for these amounts doesn't mean we can't reach them.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.