Kilo, Mega, Giga, Tera, Peta, and All That

Kilo, mega, giga, tera, and peta are among the list of prefixes that are used to denote the quantity of something, such as, in computing and telecommunications, a byte or a bit. Sometimes called prefix multipliers, these prefixes are also used in electronics and physics. Each multiplier consists of a one-letter abbreviation and the prefix that it stands for. In communications, electronics, and physics, multipliers are defined in powers of 10 from 10-24 to 102 , proceeding in increments of three orders of magnitude (103 or 1,000). In IT and data storage, multipliers are defined in powers of 2 from 210 to 280, proceeding in increments of ten orders of magnitude (210 or 1,024). These multipliers are denoted in the following table.

Prefix

Symbol(s)

Power of 10

Power of 2

yocto-

y

10-24 *

zepto-

z

10-21 *

atto-

a

10-18 *

femto-

f

10-15 *

pico-

p


10-12 *

nano-

n

10-9 *

micro-

m

10-6 *

milli-

m

10-3 *

centi-

c

10-2 *

deci-

d

10-1 *

(none)

100

20

deka-

D

101 *

hecto-

h

102 *

kilo-

**

k or K

103

210

mega-

M

106

220

giga-

G

109

230

tera-

T

1012

240

peta-

P

1015

250

exa-

E

1018 *

260

zetta-

Z

1021 *

270

yotta-


Y

1024 *

280

Examples of quantities or phenomena in which power-of-10 prefix multipliers apply include frequency (including computer clock speeds), physical mass, power, energy, electrical voltage, and electrical current. Power-of-10 multipiers are also used to define binary data speeds. Thus, for example, 1 kbps (one kilobit per second) is equal to 103, or 1,000, bps (bits per second); 1 Mbps (one megabit per second) is equal to 106, or 1,000,000, bps. (The lowercase k is the technically correct symbol for kilo- when it represents 103, although the uppercase K is often used instead.)

When binary data is stored in memory or fixed media such as a hard drive, diskette, ZIP disk, tape, or CD-ROM, power-of-2 multipliers are used. Technically, the uppercase K should be used for kilo- when it represents 210. Therefore 1 KB (one kilobyte) is 210, or 1,024, bytes; 1 MB (one megabyte) is 220, or 1,048,576 bytes.

The choice of power-of-10 versus power-of-2 prefix multipliers can appear arbitrary. It helps to remember that in common usage, multiples of bits are almost always expressed in powers of 10, while multiples of bytes are almost always expressed in powers of 2. Rarely is data speed expressed in bytes per second, and rarely is data storage or memory expressed in bits.

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