Joe Tucci interview: Age of the Zettabyte

EMC Corporation CEO Joe Tucci explains how his firm can help cope with ‘Big Data’

Joe Tucci has the patient look of a teacher explaining a complicated concept to rather a slow student. It’s only a few minutes into the interview, and Tucci – one of the IT industry’s most highly regarded veterans – is already talking about zettabytes.

What’s a zettabyte? If, like me, you were blissfully unaware of the term, then prepare to be bamboozled. It’s a unit of computer storage that’s equal to one sextillion bytes, or to make that slightly more manageable, the equivalent of the storage capacity of a billion terabyte hard drives. To put it another way, a zettabyte has been variously equated to 36 million years of high-definition video, 250 billion DVDs, or everyone in the world posting Twitter updates continuously for a century.

That’s a lot of data. And data is the life-blood of EMC Corporation, the Massachusetts-based Fortune 500 firm of which Tucci is CEO. As the need for secure information has skyrocketed in a world where data is ever-increasing, EMC has carved out a niche that is both vital to its thousands of big-name clients and happens to be pretty lucrative as well.

If the global recession had threatened to hurt the fortunes of the biggest IT firms, Tucci clearly hadn’t read the script. The tech blogs have been unanimous in their praise of EMC’s numbers last year; record revenues of $20bn (up 18 percent year-on-year), while profits jumped to $2.5bn (up 30 percent).

“We’ve got a model that we’re sticking with,” Tucci says, with admirable understatement. “On a cash basis, we’re spending about 12 percent of revenue on research and development. The other thing we do is to take a big piece of our cashflow and we’re very acquisitive. If you look back over the past five years, we’ve spent a little over $2bn a year buying tech companies – that’s our model.”

But why has the interview segued so quickly into a discussion about zettabytes? In 2010, according to a study by the independent International Data Corporation (IDC) and EMC, the world created 1.2 zettabytes of information, breaking the 1 zettabyte barrier for the first time. In 2011, there is predicted to be 1.8 zettabytes created – an astonishing rate of growth. In the decade between 2010 and 2020, IDC projects that data growth will soar 50 times over.

It’s easy to cast aspersions on a study that predicts what will happen in the IT industry ten years into the future. After all, in 2000, there was no Facebook, no Twitter – not even iTunes had been released. But Tucci points out that the same group also produced a study for the last decade – and their projections had been “eerily on target”.

“They look at how many people are going to be connected, and ask what the trends are out there,” he says. “What are oil companies doing in terms of geoscience? Look at Hollywood, how are they making movies? To create a single picture like Avatar, I’m told that was a pedabyte [a thousand terabytes] of data – just to shoot it.”

“For the last few years, you had to be connected – either via a hotspot or tethered to a wire,” Tucci continues. “Now, no matter where you go, no matter what time of day, no matter where you are, you’re connected – and you’re communicating all the time.”

“Videos are going to be on demand, more and more movies are being shot in 3D, and movies will be rendered digitally. Look at the demise of BlockBuster in the US – it’s a huge company and it’s just gone. It’s just amazing how these shifts happen.”

Needless to say, all this means huge challenges – as well as opportunities – for companies like EMC. The IDC study says that while data will increase by 50 times over the decade, the number of IT employees managing the information explosion will only grow by 50 percent. For Tucci, this is his biggest worry.

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