What Killed the Megabytes?

Hard drive capacity is rising faster than our imaginations can keep up, David Morgenstern notes. Terabytes are already old news; are you ready to start thinking in petabytes?

According to recent research from the American Medical Association, the average portion of food served to U.S. consumers, at home or in restaurants, has climbed by about 50 percent over the past 25 years. Except for pizza—go figure.

During the time that weve become accustomed to bigger portions of food, weve also grown accustomed to even more rapid gains in hard drive capacity. Hard drive capacity has risen sometimes more than 60 percent a year, although some analysts predict that the pace may slow a bit in the near future. If it dips to 50 percent a year, thats still a blistering pace.

This capacity rise has been so rapid that our terminology cant keep up.

Consider the phrase: "price per megabyte." Now this usage is common parlance in our industry, its found in most presentations that discuss the relative cost of capacity. A quick Google search uncovered plenty of hits to recently authored articles on the relative merits of hard disk storage figuring the cost per megabyte.

The only problem: whats a megabyte? Especially for rotating memory. A child using a computer today could be hard-pressed to find something in the megabyte range in his or her machine, even in the RAM department.

Ignore the irony; this is a real question. Even the smallest hard drives now are measured in gigabytes. For example, the small new drives from Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, such as the 4GB Microdrive or the recently announced 1.8-inch Travelstar Compact Series C4K40, which will be available in 20- and 40GB capacities.

What are the storage products that really measure capacity in megabytes? We must look to memory-based removable media for digital cameras and dongles. Even there, capacities are headed into the gigabyte range.

Those wondering where the megabytes went will suffer capacity future shock. Gigabytes are going that way too.

At a briefing the other day, I was presented with a chart tracking the recent growth of NAS (network-attached storage) and SAN (storage area networks) compared with direct-attached storage. It showed a wide range of data, including the decline in cost per terabyte during the past 5 years and the total shipments of these products, also measured in terabytes.

Of course, a terabyte is huge, right? Wrong: Its now fewer than a handful of drives. And thats weird to me, even though my left brain knows better. How can a terabyte of storage be heading from the incredible to the ordinary?

Yet half a terabyte is now only a couple of drives. Or one, if you pick up LaCies new Big Disk external FireWire drive, which packs a pair of 3.5-inch mechanisms side-by-side in an aluminum enclosure. To users, it looks like one big drive on both their real and virtual desktops.

So get used to terabytes while you can. Petabytes will be the next capacity point scheduled to come down to earth.

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.