The Fastest Way to Send Big Chunks of Data Is Through the Mail, Not the Internet

The future of Big Data is in the post

Photo: Jasonsisk

The vast majority of Americans are online, and recent years have thrown cloud storage and streaming services to the forefront of the discussion of the future of the internet. Sales of digital books have now outpaced sales of their paper siblings on Amazon, and streaming video is pushing physical media—DVDs and Blu-rays—out of the picture.

But for all the opportunities opened by the access of many to broadband internet connections, there is still one realm for which the old-school system of actually moving physical things from place to place is the clear and obvious winner. And it’s probably not the first thing that would come to mind. According to Randall Munroe, creator of the xkcd comic “If you want to transfer a few hundred gigabytes of data, it’s generally faster to FedEx a hard drive than to send the files over the internet.”

And, this situation is probably going to hold out for a good long while, if not forever:

Cisco estimates that total internet traffic currently averages 167 terabits per second. FedEx has a fleet of 654 aircraft with a lift capacity of 26.5 million pounds daily. A solid-state laptop drive weighs about 78 grams and can hold up to a terabyte.

That means FedEx is capable of transferring 150 exabytes of data per day, or 14 petabits per second—almost a hundred times the current throughput of the internet.

… So the bottom line is that for raw bandwidth, the internet will probably never beat SneakerNet. Of course, the virtually infinite bandwidth would come at the cost of 80,000,000-millisecond ping times.

In many fields of science and technology, the current push is towards the idea of “Big Data”—of capturing absolutely massive sets of information from satellite observations or sensor arrays and then churning through the numbers to figure out what might be going on out there in the world. For those and other similar projects—in many ways the technologically-motivated frontier of scientific research—the easiest way to then distribute your data set is, apparently, by mailing harddrives.

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