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How Much Information Is Out There?

Forget any talk of chronically underutilized servers in the datacenter: Here's a project that requires some serious number crunching.

The University of California San Diego (UCSD), with help from several tech heavyweights, announced it's begun a three-year research study to quantify how much information is being produced worldwide by businesses and consumers. The "How Much Information" (HMI) project also aims to categorize different types of data.

Joining UCSD researchers will be additional specialists from MIT and the University of California, Berkeley. Sponsoring companies, including AT&T, Cisco Systems (NASDAQ: CSCO), IBM (NYSE: IBM), LSI, Oracle, Seagate Technology and PARC, will also provide their expertise as part of the HMI effort.

Dr. James Short, a co-leader along with Prof. Roger Bohn at UCSD, said the tech companies were selected because they represent the key segments needed to make the project work: database, public and enterprise communications and storage.

"There have been a lot of studies that tried to estimate information output based on sales forecasts and equipment," Short told InternetNews.com. "But how people use information, tied to specific drivers from different usage patterns, has never been studied."

The HMI effort is especially challenging in light of the proliferation of space-demanding data like images, video and audio. Some observers have even argued that surging numbers of multimedia files are contributing to a coming "Exaflood" of data, threatening to clog the Internet.

Getting a better understanding of the trend -- and weighing the likely consequences -- is one of the aims of the project, officials said.

"We have designed this research as a partnership between industry and academics to take the next steps in understanding how to think about, measure, and understand the implications of dramatic growth in digital information," said Roger Bohn, a UC San Diego professor and co-leader of the program, in a statement.

"As the costs per byte of creating, storing, and moving data fall, the amounts rise exponentially," Bohn said. "We know that overall information technology increases productivity and human welfare, but not all information is equally valuable."

Short also said HMI will not be limited to online information.

"We want to look at the long-term archival use of information and the growth of long-term compliance information in areas like healthcare, financial and any service with a long customer tail," he said.

On the compliance front in particular, Short said HMI hopes to eventually look at differences internationally.

"There are tremendous differences in policies for retaining information," he said. "One simple question we'd like to address is, 'Are people adopting the model evolving in the U.S. or are there very different models evolving in different markets? And if so, why?'"

HMI plans to issue an initial report of its findings by the end of this year.

Short added that the plan is to establish HMI as part of an ongoing information center, which will continue to research the issues beyond the term of the study and make the results publicly available.

Updates on the research will be available online at UCSD's Global Information Industry Center at its School of International Relations and Pacific Studies.