big dataIf we’re going to talk about big data—and it’s one of the most important discussions in business today—we better all speak the same language. In the hierarchy of big data, there are petabytes, exabytes, zettabytes, and yottabytes. After that, things get murky.

The challenge is only partly one of coming to agreement on the right words to describe what lies beyond a yottabyte, which is a septillion bytes. Oracle ORCL -0.56% big data strategist Paul Sonderegger says the “whateverbyte problem” is a symptom of a larger, even more important business issue.

“Not only do we lack a name for that volume of data, we don’t know how to talk about its consequences,” Sonderegger says.

What happens, he asks, when large investment banks have perfect information about small markets? Who will be on the other side of the trade? And what happens to consumer protections when banks decide to turn purchase histories into a product for retailers, insurance companies, and other banks to buy?

The time has come for the technology industry to sharpen its language around data sets that are thousands or millions of yottabytes in size. The sooner we do this, the better equipped we will be to answer the kinds of tough questions posed by Sonderegger, which are surely coming.

A yottabyte is a mind-boggling 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. Few database managers or storage architects are thinking beyond that because their IT environments aren’t that enormous yet, but the time for such planning is coming faster than most of us realize. See my earlier column, “As Big Data Explodes, Are You Ready For Yottabyes?”

It’s time to start thinking about what comes next . In August, big data expert Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Digital Business, warned that the industry is moving so fast from petabytes to exabytes to zettabytes that “we’re literally about to run out of metrics for this stuff.”

McAfee was speaking in New York at Oracle’s Big Data At Work event. “We don’t have many prefixes left,” he said, in reference to exa, zetta, and yotta. For a recap of that event and McAfee’s presentation, see “Big Data At Work: Decline Of The HiPPO.”

He’s right. The tech industry has been circling around the terms brontobyte (a thousand yottabytes) and geopbyte (a thousand brontobytes) as the next levels in the big data hierarchy, but those are de facto terms. has no listing for either of those words. By  John Foley, Oracle read more