Imagine more than two billion of Apple's highest-capacity iPods. According to a study by technology research firm IDC, that's what it would take to store all of the digital data that the world created in 2006 alone.

Taken together, the planet's electronic ones and zeros last year added up to 161 exabytes -- or 161 billion gigabytes -- of data. But that's just a start. In a press release issued earlier this week, data storage giant EMC, which commissioned the IDC survey, predicted that the so-called "digital universe" will increase by a factor of six by 2010.

If correct, that means the planet's annual data output will be approaching one zettabyte, or one sextillion bytes (a one followed by 21 zeros).

Rising Data Storage Costs

While IDC predicts that as much as 70 percent of data in 2010 will be created by individuals -- e-mail, online video, Web sites, and so forth -- the firm also predicts that virtually all of the data will be handled by an organization at some point.

As a result, IDC argues, "organizations -- including businesses of all sizes, agencies, governments and associations -- will be responsible for the security, privacy, reliability and compliance of at least 85 percent of the information."

"If regulations become more stringent," EMC spokesperson Kevin Kempsie said, "and governments require companies to store more info, then the sphere of the average I.T. manager will expand tremendously."

Fortunately, not all digital data lasts very long. Some data is deleted and the bytes recycled, while other data is never stored in the first place (most cell phone conversations, for instance). Nonetheless, the predicted rise in data volume will put steady pressure on corporate data storage costs.

Emerging Data Trends

The EMC/IDC report contains several other significant trends that will be of interest to corporate I.T. departments, which are frequently charged with making sure that data stays in one place. The largest category of digital data, not surprisingly, is e-mail. Person-to-person communications alone accounted for six exabytes of data in 2006, and growth continues to be rapid.

In addition, IDC estimates that in 2006, there were one billion devices capable of capturing digital images. Approximately 150 billion images were taken with digital cameras, and another 100 billion with cell phones.

Approximately 20 percent of all digital data is governed by compliance rules and standards, while roughly 30 percent might be subject to security restrictions. The recent adoption of data preservation rules by the federal courts might increase those percentages.

But without question, the two most powerful data trends are the number of Internet users and the speed with which they are connecting. Between 1996 and 2006, the number of Web users grew from a mere 48 million to 1.1 billion worldwide. IDC predicts that over the next four years, another 500 million people will come online.

When new users get online, the odds are good that they'll have a fast connection. Right now, over 60 percent of Internet users have access to broadband, whether at home, school, or the office.

Consumer Privacy Concerns

For I.T. departments, the sheer volume of digital material and the ease and speed with which it can be distributed will be an ongoing challenge in the years to come. A particular concern, as organizations collect more information, will be threats to consumer privacy.

"I.T. departments," Kempskie said, "mainly secure infrastructure right now. But with the expanding digital universe, organizations will have to get a lot smarter about information security. In fact, security needs to get information-centric; that is, the security needs to travel with the information."

Kempskie said that the EMC/IDC report is actually the third in a series of studies that began in 2000. "We approached IDC last year," Kempskie said, "because everyone knows that the amount of digital information has exploded over the last few years and we felt that increase should be quantified."

A detailed version of the research is available on EMC's Web site.