Technology Focus: Moving to the Zettabyte Era

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Don't look now but we're already in the zettabyte era. Next year, market forecaster IDC predicts, the volume of digital content will rise 48 percent, to 2.7 zettabytes.

That's a long way from your first PC or Apple II.

A zettabyte is 10 to the 21st power. For easy comparison, a terabyte is 10 to the 12th power, or a trillion bytes.

That's a lot of data to be generated and managed, both via the firmware of the operating instructions embedded into electronic products like a laser printer, or the software that essentially runs the product.

As the world moves into the era of so-called big data, management problems grow. Big technology players in the enterprise sector -- IBM, Oracle, SAP, Hewlett-Packard, vmWare, Salesforce.com, Microsoft, Infor -- will be joined by others with special expertise. Last week, General Electric, the No. 1 U.S. conglomerate, introduced version 4.5 of its Proficy Historian software which it uses internally to monitor the performance of new jet engines and locomotives but also sells to external clients.

GE now sells only about $2.5 billion worth of software annually, while it uses a lot more internally. After a century, though, its in-house engineers have been able to create their own products for varied applications, using other purchased software to perfect the job.

This kind of expert software, in the enterprise or now in the Siri voice-response application on Apple's iPhone 4S, essentially replaces humans with technology. A century ago, a GE technician building a new generator might compile performance data with pen and paper or a typewriter; by now that expert system has been replicated in software.

Of course, that means there can be fewer workers who are able to be more productive deploying these systems. Think of what Siri or airline voice-response systems can do.

While much traditional manufacturing in the developed world has declined, remaining companies now are more competitive and build more reliable products. Some of this resulted from lessons learned from Japan about quality (after they imported Americans like W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran to teach them).

Better use of technology has resulted in massive improvements in the quality of U.S. industrial goods. The restructured General Motors and Chrysler are using more enterprise software than ever. The irony is that GM bought Ross Perot's Electronic Data Systems in 1984 for $2.5 billion in the forlorn hope the deal would turn it around. Now EDS is part of HP.

While many assembly line jobs will likely be eliminated, demand for software engineers and other knowledge workers will escalate. TechAmerica Foundation reports technology sector employment rose 2 percent in the first half of 2011, to 5.89 million. The biggest job gains came in engineering and technology services as well as software, which combined added 97,500 U.S.  jobs.

People with the skills to handle this new era of data are in demand. And the demand will only grow. Next year, spending on information technology may increase nearly 7 percent to $1.8 trillion. That's where the zettabytes will come from: manufacturers like GE and United Technologies will build more precision industrial products while Apple and Amazon will stream out more content through the cloud.

Besides managing all these bytes, another beneficiary will be the storage industry. Besides the two computer giants, HP and IBM, others like EMC, Symantec, NetApp and Oracle will be there; that's one reason why Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems, which had previously acquired pioneer StorageTek.

If 2012 will be among the first of the zettabyte era, the next question will be how soon until we approach that of the yottabyte, or 10 to the 24th power? Before long, its abbreviation, YB, will be common currency.

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