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Flash memory deserves a lot of credit for the digital device explosion of the past decade.

Kushan Mitra        Print Edition: April 18, 2010

In 2010, there will be an estimated 10,000 million GB of flash storage sold globally; to use the correct term, that is 10 zettabytes. A humongous amount of data, this number is expected to increase sevenfold by 2013. And, this is just the beginning, says Eli Harari, Founder & Chief Executive, SanDisk, the global leader in flash memory cards. Harari, with over 70 patents to his name, knows what he is talking about. In 1991, he was one of the people behind the first flash memory card, which was (in those days) a whopping 20 MB. It cost several thousand dollars to store what today would barely hold 5-6 pictures from a 10-megapixel camera.

To give you an example of how small and easy storage has become, thanks to flash memory, think about it this way. A 16-GB flash memory micro-SD card has an area of just under 5 per cent of a 3.5-inch floppy drive. You would need a stack of 12,000 of such floppy drives, a stack over 400 metres tall, as against something the size of a human fingernail. And 16 GB, which is over 16,000 MB, is enough capacity to store over 4,000 songs or 11 days of non-stop music or about four hours of high-definition video.

  • 1 bit=one unit of binary information (either a 1 or a 0)
  • 1 byte=8 bits (represents one character)
  • 1 kilobyte=1,024 bytes (the average document is around 50-100 KB)
  • 1 megabyte=1,024 kilobytes (the average MP3 is around 4 MB)
  • 1 gigabyte=1,024 megabytes (a Blu-Ray disk has 25 GB capacity)
  • 1 terabyte=1,024 gigabytes (presently, standard external hard drives are between 2 and 4 TB)
  • 1 petabyte=1,024 terabytes (a few of these will be able to store every single sound recording ever made)
  • 1 exabyte=1,024 petabytes (a couple of hundred of these is what is the estimated capacity of the human brain)
  • 1 zettabyte=1,024 exabytes (this year, humanity will buy 10 ZB worth of flash storage)
But the truly revolutionary part is what Harari is doing now. Along with its partner, Japanese firm Toshiba, SanDisk is developing a three-dimensional semiconductor chip as the next generation of storage. This is because, Harari feels, more people will buy more devices and demand more storage. He gives the example of the iPod; it was the flash storage-driven iPod Nano that really blew the market open (the early iPod used a mini hard disk). In fact, today, storage, not the touch screen, is the highest cost component of iPod Touch and iPhone.

Says Harari: "People will not have a desktop to back up their data, they will store data on their device, that means flash." In fact, he feels that flash technology will displace the traditional hard disk drive from devices, including laptops, "unless you want terabyte (1,000 GB) level storage, you will choose flash for reasons of both cost and convenience".

So, Harari's numbers may not seem that wild, after all. It will mean that every individual will have just over 10 GB of flash storage to their name. And, when you consider that if you own a smartphone or a digital camera today you are already ahead of the curve, it really does not sound like that much. In effect, storage will become even more pervasive than it is today.

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