Bits Of Bytes

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Kevin P. processes a chunk of information

The burgeoning world of tech-jargon is a bewildering place, and it’s easy for newcomers to become confused. However, as computing nomenclature ebbs and flows, there’s one – or rather two - things we need to get straight. They arrived in small amounts, but now they’re here to stay and multiplying all the time. No, not the cost of your heating bill, but bits and bytes. Small things, easy to confuse, and well worth keeping an eye on.

Zuse’s Z3. Now part of the Deutsches Museum, Munich

Zuse’s Z3. Now part of the Deutsches Museum, Munich

In The Bit-inning

How old do you think the idea of ‘bits’ is? They originated in the 1980s, perhaps? Oh okay, the 70s? Both are wrong. In fact, even if you’re thinking it was the early 20th century, then you’re a way off. ‘Bit’ is a contraction of the term ‘binary digit’, and in theory at least they were being used in 1725 by two gents by the names of Basile Bouchon and Jean-Baptiste Falcon. Bouchon and Falcon were using the binary digits to record data for use in mechanised textile looms, but a not dissimilar use of binary digits became the basis of punch cards, the things used well into the 20th century, which allowed people to clock or ‘punch’ in and out of workplaces.

In the case of punch cards, data was either punched or not, and it’s this ‘on or off’ computational theory that meant the use of ‘bits’ would be perfect for basic instruction sets when programmable computing eventually began to arrive. Via Morse code, teletypes and mechanical computing, the recorded media of ‘binary digits’ were termed ‘bits’ in 1947 and formed the basis of of Konrad Zuse’s Z3, the first fully working programmable computer.

Take A Byte

As any good internet search will tell you, ‘byte’ was coined by American Werner Buchholz and is a deliberate misspelling of ‘bite’ so as to avoid any confusion with bits. The irony is that the very existence of this article is proof that didn’t go exactly to plan! A byte now is eight bits. That’s eight binary digits. It’s similar to how a dozen is 12 of something, except a byte is specifically eight bits, so we need never say ‘a byte of bits’. I know that’s a bit of a tongue twister, but it was going to happen at some point.

Konrad Zuse, creator of the first automatic, programmable computer

Konrad Zuse, creator of the first automatic, programmable computer

But why ‘byte’ anyway? Buccholz wasn’t referring specifically to eight binary digits, just a unit that was the least amount of data a computer could process - a lower limit. In fact, the eight bits of a common byte came into use almost against the flow of pre-existing trends, thanks to IBM. Punch-cards used 6-bit elements of information, and through development to sets of 7-bit information, ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) was standardised in US governmental use.

However, IBM was engaged in delivering its System/360, a family of computers for varied workloads, utilising its 8-bit EBCDIC (Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code). EBCDIC, which had seven bits plus one ‘parity bit’, included for error checking, was met with some resistance. However, due to the popularity of IBM’s system/360 computers and the adoption of 8-bit coding by telephone giant AT&T, 8-bit coding was to later be a crucial part of a small thing called the internet. The fact that most computer processors from then on were based on 8-bit instruction sets helped proliferate what is today a widely accepted standard: a byte equals eight bits.

Confusion Reigns

Jump forward about three decades to the 2000s, and with such astounding technological advances being made, it’s no wonder everybody was suddenly swimming in tech-jargon. It’s equally understandable that things have since developed to a stage where the terms megabit or gigabit and megabyte or gigabyte are every day terms, often misused. We’re bombarded by papers, TVs, the internet, retail outlets, adverts and even common conversation. We’re told about broadband speeds, storage capacities and all sorts like we know what’s being said. Yet not everybody is necessarily aware of the differences concerning bits and bytes.

Confusing Components

To confound matters, although memory and storage is sold at nice round numbers, once installed the number appears to change. So that 4GB (four gigabyte) RAM kit you bought is seen by the operating system as 4096MB (effectively 4.096 gigabytes). Meanwhile, your 500GB disk drive could be seen as 465GB.

Why? It’s to do with the way computers address data, and that’s in binary. Any collection of eight bits (a byte) is capable of two values, on or off, so to a computer the value of a byte - its fundamental processing data - is 2. Because a gigabyte (1GB) is one thousand million bytes (that’s nine zeros), it is equal to 210 bytes or two times itself nine times, which is 1,024. Therefore, a 4GB kit will be addressed as four lots of 1024MB (4096MB). It’s perfect, because due to the nature of binary language, memory capacities designed to the power of two are ideal to be correctly addressed.

Ah, Windows, with its binary addressing

Ah, Windows, with its binary addressing

For storage, this doesn’t really apply. Although a computer will do the same working out based on binary, data storage doesn’t depend on data being simultaneously processed and manufacturers can produce capacities pretty close to the whatever the advertised capacity is. And for communications and speed (your kilo, mega and gigabits), the standard is decimalised (so 1GB is 1,000,000,000 bytes or 1,000MB)

Notation is critically important and, although practically begging for human error, thankfully standardised. Anything ending with a lower-case ‘b’, (i.e, Kb, Mb, Gb and Tb) refers to bits, such as kilobit, megabit, gigabit and terabit. Meanwhile, anything with a capital ‘B’ (i.e, KB, MB, GB and TB) refers to bytes, such as kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes and terabytes. Indeed, this is the notation we use in this very magazine.

Where this falls down is in occasional mistakes. Luckily, though, there are common usages enabling us to unravel the errors. Bits should be thought of in terms of processing and speed - think active bits of information in use. Bytes, however, should be thought of as storage and capacity - chunks (or bites) of data stored for use. So when broadband speeds are being spoken about, it is Kbps (kilobits per second) or Mbps (megabits per second) which are being referred to. When disk drive capacities are the topic, MB, GB or TB, referring to byte capacity, are meant.

A Final Jump

Hopefully, that’s cleared and confusion and reminded a few (myself included) of how bits and bytes got here today. But there’s one more thing: although it’s easier to keep bits and bytes apart if at all possible, they are part of the same world and occasionally come crashing together, creating scratched heads and furrowed brows.

A consumer may wonder what the direct comparison is, or want some sort of singular reference point like knowing how many bytes per second a broadband speed works out as. The earlier rule applies: there are are eight bits to a byte. So if you’re cruising at 16Mbps (megabits per second), that’s 2MB/s (megabytes per second). Of course, that doesn’t sound quite as impressive, though

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