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Executive Summary: A Universe of Opportunities and Challenges

Welcome to the “digital universe” — a measure of all the digital data created, replicated, and consumed in a single year. It’s also a projection of the size of that universe to the end of the decade. The digital universe is made up of images and videos on mobile phones uploaded to YouTube, digital movies populating the pixels of our high-definition TVs, banking data swiped in an ATM, security footage at airports and major events such as the Olympic Games, subatomic collisions recorded by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, transponders recording highway tolls, voice calls zipping through digital phone lines, and texting as a widespread means of communications.

With the rise of Big Data awareness and analytics technology, the digital universe in 2012 has taken on the feel of a tangible geography — a vast, barely charted place full of promise and danger. The digital universe lives increasingly in a computing cloud, above terra firma of vast hardware datacenters linked to billions of distributed devices, all governed and defined by increasingly intelligent software.

In this context, at the midpoint of a longitudinal study starting with data collected in 20051 and extending to 2020, our analysis shows a continuously expanding, increasingly complex, and ever more interesting digital universe. This is IDC’s sixth annual study of the digital universe, and it’s chock-full of new findings:

  • From 2005 to 2020, the digital universe will grow by a factor of 300, from 130 exabytes to
    40,000 exabytes, or 40 trillion gigabytes (more than 5,200 gigabytes for every man, woman, and child in 2020). From now until 2020, the digital universe will about double every two years.
  • The investment in spending on IT hardware, software, services, telecommunications and staff that could be considered the “infrastructure” of the digital universe and telecommunications will grow by 40% between 2012 and 2020. As a result, the investment per gigabyte (GB) during that same period will drop from $2.00 to $0.20. Of course, investment in targeted areas like storage management, security, big data, and cloud computing will grow considerably faster.
  • Between 2012 and 2020, emerging markets’ share of the expanding digital universe will grow from 36% to 62%.
  • A majority of the information in the digital universe, 68% in 2012, is created and consumed by consumers — watching digital TV, interacting with social media, sending camera phone images and videos between devices and around the Internet, and so on. Yet enterprises have liability or responsibility for nearly 80% of the information in the digital universe. They deal with issues of copyright, privacy, and compliance with regulations even when the data zipping through their networks and server farms is created and consumed by consumers.
  • Only a tiny fraction of the digital universe has been explored for analytic value. IDC estimates that by 2020, as much as 33% of the digital universe will contain information that might be valuable if analyzed.
  • By 2020, nearly 40% of the information in the digital universe will be “touched” by cloud computing providers — meaning that a byte will be stored or processed in a cloud somewhere in its journey from originator to disposal.
  • The proportion of data in the digital universe that requires protection is growing faster than the digital universe itself, from less than a third in 2010 to more than 40% in 2020.
  • The amount of information individuals create themselves — writing documents, taking pictures, downloading music, etc. — is far less than the amount of information being created about them in the digital universe.
  • Much of the digital universe is transient — phone calls that are not recorded, digital TV images that are watched (or “consumed”) that are not saved, packets temporarily stored in routers, digital surveillance images purged from memory when new images come in, and so on. Unused storage bits installed throughout the digital universe will grow by a factor of 8 between 2012 and 2020 but will still be less than a quarter of the total digital universe in 2020.

The Digital Universe: 50-fold Growth from the Beginning of 2010 to the End of 2020

Within these broad outlines of the digital universe are some singularities worth noting.

First, while the portion of the digital universe holding potential analytic value is growing, only a tiny fraction of territory has been explored. IDC estimates that by 2020, as much as 33% of the digital universe will contain information that might be valuable if analyzed, compared with 25% today. This untapped value could be found in patterns in social media usage, correlations in scientific data from discrete studies, medical information intersected with sociological data, faces in security footage, and so on. However, even with a generous estimate, the amount of information in the digital universe that is “tagged” accounts for only about 3% of the digital universe in 2012, and that which is analyzed is half percent of the digital universe. Herein is the promise of “Big Data” technology — the extraction of value from the large untapped pools of data in the digital universe.

The Impact of Consumers (2012)

Moreover, IDC believes that much of the digital universe is unprotected. Our estimate is that about a third of the data in the digital universe requires some type of protection — to protect privacy, adhere to regulations, or prevent digital snooping or theft. However, currently, only about 20% of the digital universe actually has these protections. The level of protection varies by region, with much less protection in emerging markets.

Therefore, like our own physical universe, the digital universe is rapidly expanding and incredibly diverse, with vast regions that are unexplored and some that are, frankly, scary.

The Digital Universe Paradox: Falling Costs and Rising Investment

However, the digital universe astronauts among us — the CIOs, data scientists, digital entrepreneurs — already know the value that can be found in this ever-expanding collection of digital bits. Hence, there is excitement about Big Data technologies, automatic tagging algorithms, real-time analytics, social media data mining, and myriad new storage technologies.


1The first Digital Universe Study was published in 2007 (see http://www.emc.com/collateral/analyst-reports/expanding-digital-idc-white-paper.pdf). At that time, IDC’s forecast for the digital universe in 2010 was 988 exabytes. Based on actuals, it was later revised to 1,227 exabytes.

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