Exploring the digital universe

Almost by accident, we've built a digital universe. Now it's time to explore
Written by Leader , Contributor

According to modern physics, there is a possibility that the universe we inhabit is just one of many, each following different rules and experiencing their own space and time. According to IDC, that multiverse is here already. Our physical universe is increasingly mirrored by our digital universe, the sum of all computerised information. And like the physical, the digital is expanding at an ever-increasing rate.

There are other parallels. Rules that work well on the small scale become irrelevant on the large. Managing documents by file name may work for 10 or 100, but when there are thousands or millions, we must evolve entirely different ways of working. By 2010, there will be a billion PCs connected to a zettabyte of data — 10 to the power of 21. That's not so far from the numbers of grains of sand in all the world's beaches. Increasingly, the enterprise is its data — and our businesses will exist within that universe as solidly as the earth orbits the sun.

Everywhere we look, the limiting factor on IT is data — its storage, retrieval, security and comprehension. The parameters by which we specify our technology — processor speeds, bus and net bandwidths, stack configurations and so on — are secondary. We are embarking on a new era, one where the primary driving forces for research are storage and search, and one where, for all our cleverness and inventiveness, the ground rules are still largely unknown. Google is the poster child for this new age, but there's plenty of room for fundamental research to turn the industry on its head again. Information theory is the newest of sciences: it will become one of the most important.

Take a step back from the mechanics of servers, security and storage. Think about information, what it is and what it means. Information theory says that by itself, information is meaningless — it has to be in context to be useful. Your business data may have many different meanings throughout its lifetime, and it is everyone's job in a company to find and use those meanings. Only by thinking in terms of the digital universe, by embracing the idea that it is there to be explored rather than constrained, can we succeed. We are astronomers, space farers, adventurers — and the adventure is just beginning.


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