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How to know your bits from your bytes

by daisy
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While you may not know your bits from your bytes and it has never caused you any issues in the past, it is worth getting a handle on. The fact is that storage is becoming increasingly important in our homes, in our cloud, in our offices, in our datacenters and more. If you want to know the difference between a kilobyte and a yottabyte, then read on.

Let’s start at the beginning or should I say the bottom. A bit is as small as we are concerned with when talking about data storage. A bit is basically a binary code resulting in 0 or 1. This means 1 bit could contain the binary value for a light switch (on or off) or a statement hypothesis (true or false) but nothing more. 8 bits make a byte. A byte is important because more computers use a byte (or 8 binary characters) to represent a character such as a letter, number or symbol – bytes matter.

We really only start to get into proper storage when we go a level higher. A kilobyte measures 1024 bytes. As you know one byte is a character then a kilobyte is something slightly larger like a sentence. Word files, therefore, are often measured in kilobytes. Many people wrongly think that KILObytes must be 1,000 bytes but it is 1,024. Because binary is used in computer systems bytes are always measured in the power of 2 as binary has a base of 2. Doing this allows processing to be much easier as only the last few digits need to be checked in binary code. Therefore 2 to the power of 10 is 1024. 

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This system is kept the whole way through data storage and while it is not important to understand fully it is great to know. Every level we move up in storage is a multiple of 1024. Therefore we can already know that a megabyte is 1024 kilobytes. Megabytes are used for things like pictures and audio files as well as short video clips.

After megabytes we start to get big, a gigabyte is next (of course it is 1024 megabytes), followed by a terabyte (1024^4), a petabyte (1024^5), an exabyte (1024^6), zettabyte (1024^7) and a yottabyte (1024^8). The powers that be are still deciding what comes after a yottabyte but whatever it is called it will measure 1024^9. 

While you may only care about gigabytes today as that is how large your movie files are and your internal storage is, terabytes are increasingly common. In data centers around the world they mainly care about petabytes. However, as technology continues to advance we will be increasingly moving up the stack. Who knows in 100 years’ time you may be watching a movie so rich in detail that it measures 6 yottabytes!

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