New Metric System Measurements Reflect World’s Growing Big Data Stores

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The sun now weighs two thousand quettagrams, instead of two billion yottagrams, thanks to the world’s ever-increasing big data stores. For the first time since 1991, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures has added four new prefixes to the metric system, a change brought on by the evolving requirements of data storage.

The new names for very large numbers are:

  • Ronna (symbol R) for 1027 or 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000
  • Quetta (symbol Q) for 1030 or 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000

The new names for very small numbers are:

  • Ronto (symbol r) for 10−27 or 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 001
  • Quecto (symbol q) for 10−30 or 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 001

According to the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the U.K.’s National Metrology Institute, the change was largely driven by the growing requirements of data science and digital storage, which they say were already using prefixes at the top of the existing range (yottabytes and zettabytes). The prefixes for the smallest numbers are often used by quantum science and particle physics.

Experts are forecasting a tsunami of data growth (or a Datanami, if you will) in the next few years. Research from the IDC Global DataSphere, a measure of how much new data is created, captured, replicated, and consumed each year, shows that global data is estimated to grow substantially: “The global DataSphere is expected to more than double in size from 2022 to 2026. The enterprise DataSphere will grow more than twice as fast as the consumer DataSphere over the next five years, putting even more pressure on enterprise organizations to manage and protect the world’s data while creating opportunities to activate data for business and societal benefits,” said John Rydning, research vice president of the IDC Global DataSphere. The IDC research also showed that 64.2 zettabytes of data was created or replicated in 2020 alone, and if current rates continue, more than 180 zettabytes (or 180 billion terabytes) will be created in 2025.

This chart shows the new order of large numbers in the metric system. Source: National Physical Laboratory, U.K.

Exponentially larger supercomputers are also coming to the fore, and exascale computing, or systems capable of a quintillion (1018) calculations per second, have become a reality thanks to Frontier, a new exascale system at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The lofty objective of zettascale computing is also being pursued: earlier this year, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center and Intel announced a collaboration to create open-source RISC-V chips designed to attain the goal of zettascale computing (1021 calculations per second).

“In the last 30 years, the datasphere has increased exponentially, and data scientists have realized they will no longer have words to describe the levels of storage. These terms are upcoming, the future,” said Dr. Richard Brown, head of metrology at NPL told the Associated Press.

Brown proposed the four new prefixes at the 27th General Conference on Weights and Measures which took place in Versailles, France. Officials from 64 nations approved the prefixes on Nov. 18, and the new terms are effective immediately.

The new prefix names were not chosen at random, according to Brown. The letters R and Q were the only letters not already in use. Additionally, an existing precedent requires the names to sound similar to Greek letters, and the large number prefixes must end with an A and the small number prefixes must end with an O.

“It was high time. (We) need new words as things expand,” Brown said. “In just a few decades, the world has become a very different place.”

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