Size of the data universe: 1.2 zettabytes and growing fast

IDC releases calculations of the total amount of data now being stored and managed -- enough for a stack of DVDs reaching from the earth to moon and back. By 2020, that stack will reach halfway to Mars.

IDC has just released estimates that this year, the Digital Universe — meaning every electronically stored piece of data or file out there — will reach 1.2 million petabytes, or 1.2 zettabytes, this year.

That's up from a measly 800,000 petabytes in 2009. Despite an economic slowdown or meltdown in some quarters, the total amount of data still grew by 62%, IDC reports. To illustrate how much data this is, write John Gantz and David Reinsel, authors of the IDC report, "picture a stack of DVDs reaching from the earth to the moon and back." (About 240,000 miles each way.)

Still, this is only the beginning of a data explosion, Gantz and Reinsel observe -- by 2020, the amount of data will have grown 44-fold, to 35 trillion gigabytes. Fueling the growth will be the evolution of all major forms of media – voice, TV, radio, print – from analog to digital.

"Our stack of DVDs would now reach halfway to Mars," Gantz and Reinsel note. Most of this digital content is not unique -- in fact, Gantz and Reinsel relate, "nearly 75% of our digital world is a copy – in other words, only 25% is unique."

The IDC Digital Universe report was underwritten by EMC.

IDC also estimates that at least 15% of the Digital Universe by 2020 will be managed or stored in the cloud -- that is, "created in the cloud, delivered to the cloud, stored and manipulated in the cloud." Gantz and Reinsel add that at least a third of all this data will "pass through the cloud" at some point in the lifecycle.

With all this data comes security headaches, of course. "By 2020, almost 50% of the information in the Digital Universe will require a level of IT-based security beyond a baseline level of virus protection and physical protection. That’s up from about 30% this year," Gantz and Reinsel caution. "And while the portion of that part of the Digital Universe that needs the highest level of security is small – in gigabytes and total files – that portion will grow by a factor of 100."

And, they add: "Not all data needs to be protected equally. A YouTube video of a cat doing tricks would seem to need less protection against hacking or corruption than a home-banking customer’s account balances."

One bit of good news is the staffing and investment to manage this Digital Universe will only grow by a factor of 1.4. IDC estimates that in 2009, the world spent nearly $4 trillion on hardware, software, services, networks, and IT staff to manage the Digital Universe. "That spending is expected to grow modestly between now and 2020, which means the cost of managing each byte in the Digital Universe will drop steadily – an incentive to create even more information," Gantz and Reinsel say.