IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Drowning in a digital sea of content

Image: My DVR Expander by Western Digital Corp.
The My DVD Expander, right, made by Western Digital Corp., holds 500 gigabytes of TV programming that can be offloaded from digital video recorders, including certain models by TiVo and Scientific Atlanta.Western Digital Corp.

When Western Digital Corp., which makes storage devices, released its My DVR Expander last fall, videophiles and video files breathed a sigh of relief.

The device takes away the onus of having to erase and make room on overburdened digital video recorders, such as TiVo and other brands, that faithfully fill up 80- to 250-gigabyte hard drives with television programming.

“I think there’s a lot of people out there who had have set-top boxes (DVRs) for the last few years who were waiting for more storage, instead of having to buy a new set-top box,” said Jennifer Serfas, senior marketing manager for Western Digital.

The $200 unit has a 500-gigabyte hard drive. That’s about the same size as the hard drives of many personal computers. Is it enough room?

Maybe for now, but don’t blink. A DVR expander in a terabyte-version — which holds 1,000 gigabytes — is in the offing, Serfas said.

The device is just one of many options consumers are turning to for help with digital storage. And it’s a growing problem.

Research firm IDC called it “The Diverse and Exploding Digital Universe,” in a report issued last week, contrasting with last year’s report title, “The Expanding Digital Universe.”

Storage expert Thomas Coughlin likens it to drowning in a sea of content “if we don’t create ways to organize and find stuff,” as well as to protect it by backing it up.

There are more than 100 million video streams on YouTube every day, 67 million active users of Facebook posting a variety of information, and a growing number of digital devices, from iPhones to cameras, holding some of our most cherished personal information.

Where and how to save the digital bytes of our lives is becoming crucial.

“This is where our culture lives, essentially, in these digital storage devices,” said Coughlin, author of “Digital Storage In Consumer Electronics: The Essential Guide,” due to be published this month.

“Increasingly, it’s becoming digital content from cradle to grave. That has its own challenges, which include how do you preserve and protect digital content for the future?

“We have more of the personal experience that we’re conserving (digitally) for the next generation than ever before, but in a sense, in a more potentially fragile package than has ever existed in the history of mankind,” he said.

“Almost everybody is doing storage of one sort or another. How well they’re handling it, how well they’re backing up, and will stuff that they keep be available later? That’s a whole other problem.”

Size and obsolescence issues
For now, bigger is better, even though there are no guarantees as to the kinds of devices the future will bring — or make obsolete.

One- and two-terabyte back-up hard drives for consumers are on the market. The next level up in the bit chain: petabytes, with one petabyte equaling 1,000 terabytes. And after that, comes exabytes, with one exabyte totaling 1,000 petabytes, or a billion gigabytes.

If your head is starting to hurt, get used to it, says Coughlin. He estimates that by 2015, personal and commercial content on consumer electronic devices will total 3,041 exabytes.

Some of that content will include metadata — “which is data about data,” he said, information that describes digital files, and is used to search and find them. It’s becoming increasingly important, and by itself “could swell storage needs,” Coughlin said.

More people appear to be to turning to online storage sites as one resource.

Doug Chandler, IDC’s research director for storage services, said in a company forecast at the end of last year about the overall online storage market, the consumer segment is growing.

“We didn’t break it down in terms of business vs. consumer use, but in our estimate, there’s a healthy percentage of the total market that is consumer,” he said.

“We’re seeing more and more people realizing that they have a lot of important data files that they don’t want to lose, and for some people, using a (Web) service that they can subscribe to is a better way to go than buying an external hard drive, or investing in a lot of thumb drives.”

Numerous companies, from large to small, offer online storage. Some offer varying degrees of free storage. Yahoo, for example, provides up to 25 gigabytes of free space; America Online and Microsoft offer up to 5 GB ( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal).

One highly regarded company,, charges $49.95 a year for unlimited storage.

But unlimited does not mean fast. notes on its site, “As a practical matter… the speed of today’s DSL and cable Internet services will make it slow to back up more than, say, a few dozen GB of data.”

Chandler agrees.

“If you have a significant amount of data, and you want to restore all of it, it’s going to take a little while,” by using an online storage site, he said.

“There’s isn’t the network bandwidth enough yet to allow it to happen very quickly.”

Files not getting smaller
The IDC report released last week, and sponsored by data storage corporation EMC, said that in 2007, the digital universe equaled 281 billion gigabytes of data, or about 45 gigabytes for every person on Earth.

That contrasts with the year before, when the firm said 161 billion gigabytes of data was created, representing “about 3 million times the information in all the books ever written.”

“In most cases, for the average consumer, you’re talking about needing storage for anywhere from a couple gigabytes to 50 to 100 gigabytes,” Chandler said.

“However, those numbers are all going to increase, because no one seems to be reducing the amount of data that they’re collecting, backing up or generating. And the files don’t seem to be getting smaller.”

Is a terabyte hard drive for TV shows needed because fans of “Dancing With the Stars” or “Lost” want to keep every single episode for posterity?

That’s not it at all, said Serfas of Western Digital.

“With a lot of (TV) content starting to be in high-definition, that hard drive is being filled up very quickly,” she said.

“That’s one of the big, driving factors of needing more storage. It’s not necessarily how long consumers keep the content, but how much they actually record.”

While Western Digital’s DVR expander holds about 300 hours of standard TV programming, when it comes to high-definition programming, it banks 60 hours’ worth.

That’s because HD is richer visual content, which translates to a larger digital footprint in terms of the space required for its digital files.

Ultimately, Coughlin believes, consumers’ enormous digital storage demands may lead to one device with “virtualized, automated management” that deals with all content, “to reduce the complexity of trying to manage all these things in the home.”

“If people have to do all this stuff manually, they won’t do it, and it won’t get done,” he said. “But if there is a machine to do it, that will allow us to beat the odds of conserving content for the future.”