“… would consume nearly half the world’s digital storage capacity.”

A recent National Geographic article on recent research into the brain (February 2014) said something which I find intriguing. “Producing an image of an entire human brain at the same resolution [as a mouse brain] would consume nearly half of the world’s current digital storage capacity.”

They were imaging slices of a mouse brain with an electron microscope, in slices one millimeter square, at a micron in depth, representing just a thousand cubic microns per image. Such a scan of the full mouse brain would require 450,000 TB (0.45 EB, exabyte=10E18 bytes) of storage for the images.

Getting an equivalent resolution image of a single human brain would require 1.3 billion TB (or 1.3 ZB, zettabyte=10E21 bytes).  They went on to say that the world’s digital storage was just 2.7 billion TB (or 2.7 ZB), which is where they came up with the “… nearly half the world’s digital storage capacity.”

So how much digital storage is there in the world today

Setting aside the need for such a detailed map for the moment. Let’s talk about the world’s digital storage.

  • Tape – I don’t have much information about the enterprise tape capacity currently available in IBM TS1120/TS1130 or Oracle T10000C/B/A but a relatively recent article indicated that the 225 millionth LTO cartridge was shipped sometime in 3Q13 which represented a capacity of 90,000 PB (or 90 EB, exabyte=10E18 bytes) of storage capacity
  • Disk – Although I couldn’t find a reasonable estimate of installed disk capacity, IDC reported that 2012 disk capacity shipments were 20EB and through 3Q13 there had been 24.3EB shipped. It’s probably safe to assume that capacity shipments were ~8.3EB or more in 4Q13 so we have shipped ~32.5EB of disk capacity in 2013. One estimate of worldwide disk storage capacity (also provided by IDC) is that we are doubling worldwide disk storage capacity every two years so one estimate of installed disk capacity as of the end of 4Q13 is something on the order of 113.6EB of disk storage.

I won’t delve into optical storage as that’ s even more difficult to get a handle on but my guess is it’s not quite to the level of LTO digital storage so maybe another 90EB there for a total of  ~0.3ZB of digital storage in disks, LTO tape and optical.

However, back in February of 2010, researchers reported in Science that the world’s information storage capacity was 2.0 ZB of storage. Also, last October IDC reported that the US alone had a digital storage capacity of 2.6 ZB and that the US had somewhere between 24 to 40% of the world’s storage. Let’s use 33%, for simplicity sake, this would put world’s digital capacity at around 7.8ZB of storage according to IDC.

Thankfully, a human brain scan at the resolutions above would take only a sixth of the world’s digital storage based on my estimates.

But, we really need to talk about data reduction techniques

I think we need to start discussing some form of data reduction, data compression/fractal compression or even graphical encoding. For example, with appropriate software and compute power the neural scans could be encoded at appropriate levels of detail into a graphical representation. Hopefully, this should be many orders of magnitude less storage intensive. So maybe only 1/600th to 1/60,000 of all the world’s digital storage

Another approach might be to use a form of fractal compression similar to that done in motion pictures/photographic images. Perhaps, I am being naive but it seems to me that there ought to be some form of fractal encoding of neural branching. Most of nature’s branching structures have an underlying fractal basis and I see nothing in neural anatomy that would show me it’s any different.

Of course, I am not a neural biologist, but I am a storage expert and there’s got to be a way to reduce this data load somehow.


Photo Credit: Microscopic embryonic mouse brain (DAPI, GFP) by Joseph Elsbernd