Big data and the Death Star

The Star Wars movies have captured the imaginations of everyone, from baby boomers through millennials on down to tots. It seems like everyone has been talking about the latest episode in this saga. Around the water cooler, discussions begin with “Have you seen it?”

Being a database company, the topic around this office is, of course, “How much data do they need to manage in the Death Star?”

To avoid spoilers, we will discuss the data requirements of the original Death Star, as it debuted in “Episode 4: A New Hope.” That incarnation of the planet-destroying battle station was on the order of 150 kilometers in diameter. It included a super laser capable of disintegrating entire worlds in one blast.

The Death Star of brotherly love?

The crew on board the Death Star was estimated at 1.7 million military personnel (stormtroopers and their commanders, trash compactor operators, etc.) and 400,000 droids. This is close to the population of Philadelphia — if you don’t count the droids.

The name “Philadelphia” literally means “brotherly love.” In 2014, they officially changed their nickname to “The City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.” If it is overrun by 400,000 droids, they will need to update that title again. We propose “The City of Brotherly Love, Sisterly Affection, and Droidly Indifference.”

Economics students at Lehigh University estimated it would require more than one quadrillion tons of steel to build the Death Star. At the current rate of steel production, you will need to wait more than 800,000 years for the raw materials to arrive…costing $852 quadrillion at 2012 prices.

Do the math

The amount of data created each year by all the people here on earth is growing exponentially: It is expected to double each year. It was 2.8 zettabytes in 2012. By 2020, it is expected to have increased to 40 zetabytes. That’s 5,200 GB of data for each and every person on earth.

Using that estimate, we could figure that the 1.7 million personnel on the Death Star would generate 8.84 exabytes of data per year. If you prefer to express data in factors of 1024 bytes, the number is 8.63 exabytes (or “exbibytes”).

Of course, that’s assuming residents of the Death Star generate as much data as a human living in the year 2020. We think the galaxy far, far away may be far more advanced than that.

Meanwhile, back in this galaxy, a new force is bursting on the scene and generating even more data.

The rise of the machines

Earth is currently experiencing the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT). Data generation is not limited to content we humans create on our phones and tablets. Now we wear watches and wristbands that spew a continuous stream of telemetry about their owners’ heart rates, locations, pacing, etc.

It is a difficult challenge to decide how droid data usage compares to the data from a refrigerator or thermostat.

Any non-humans who are reading this should not feel left out: The IoT includes refrigerators that create shopping lists of items to be purchased by the humans they control; thermostats that report statistics about energy usage in their homes while making intelligent decisions about how to minimize it; automobiles that download GPS and mapping information, not to mention streaming tunes from the Internet; traffic cams reporting road conditions; and the list goes on.

And which residents of the Death Star most closely resemble the IoT? The 400,000 droids, of course. It is a difficult challenge to decide how droid data usage compares to the data from a refrigerator or thermostat. Because droids appear to be relatively intelligent, let’s assume they generate as much data as an equivalent number of humans (many of whom are relatively intelligent).

Using the same math above, we can estimate that the droids create 2.08 exabytes per year (or 2.03 exbibytes per year).

The infrastructure

The ship certainly needs a database of full architectural specifications and maintenance procedures. The size of that database could be estimated based on a database maintained by a city of similar size, which takes us back to the city of brotherly, sisterly and droidly love, Philadelphia. They maintain 326 datasets covering all aspects of the city: city council districts, park locations, historic structures, demographics, businesses, etc.

Another way to look at this question is, “How complex a structure can you build with one quadrillion tons of steel?” When the students at Lehigh University made their estimate of the cost of a Death Star, they assumed it was similar to a modern battleship…although much bigger.

This article did not show the students’ math (for shame!), so we need to reverse their calculations and divide 1.08 quadrillion metric tons of Death Star by 22 thousand tons per battleship, telling us that they figured a Death Star is equivalent to almost 50 billion battleships. So they would need almost 50 billion times the amount of engineering data on a single battleship. Anybody know how much engineering data is stored on a battleship?

Targeting information

But there is much more to this battle station than a crew and some steel. It’s the super laser that puts the “death” in Death Star.

A significant source of data likely to be found aboard the Death Star will be for targeting that laser. Surely this battleship has detailed data about every planet it encounters. Our own, rather typical, galaxy, the Milky Way, comprises 100 to 400 billion stars and at least 100 billion planets.

If that far, far away galaxy is similar our own, the Death Star would need to keep track of a comparable number of bodies. All of the inhabited planets pose potential threats; all of the stars are potential sources of fuel. We can make the assumption that all this data will be stored locally.

Remembering the estimate that, by 2020, the total amount of data in the world (our world, earth) will have reached 40 zetabytes, we can use that as the amount of data the Death Star would need to store for each planet in their galaxy. Now, before you go multiplying 100 billion planets by 40 zetabytes, we must first look at Drake’s equation.

Scientists estimate that the Milky Way may currently be home to 1,000 to 100,000,000 civilizations.

In 1961, astronomer Frank Drake proposed an equation to estimate the number of intelligent civilizations that might be trying to communicate with us. It takes into account such factors as the percentage of stars that might have planets, the percentage of those planets that may support life, the percentage of life that develops into intelligent life and builds civilizations and the percentage of civilizations that develop technology to communicate across the expanse of space…and actually decide to send us a tweet.

Using all those factors, and a few more, scientists estimate that the Milky Way may currently be home to 1,000 to 100,000,000 civilizations. Over the years other estimates have been made, which range from 0 to 36.4 million.

Taking a number in the middle, let’s say the Death Star is monitoring 1 million planets. Multiply that by 40 zetabytes of data for each planet and we have 40,000 yottabytes.

A yottabyte (no connection to Yoda, but we weren’t the first to ponder this) is 1024 zettabytes. Enough 200GB micro SDXC cards to store a single yottabyte would fill the Hindenburg zeppelin. So this much data would require storage media the size of 40,000 Hindenburgs, or 282.4 billion cubic feet of flash memory.

Of course, the Death Star uses very advanced technology. Looking at possible advances, DNA has been proposed as a storage medium for biomolecular computing. DNA packs a full blueprint of a human — or presumably a Jedi, Sith or Wookie — into the nucleus of a single cell. Using this technology, a yottabyte could be stored in less than one cubic meter.

Don’t forget, we still need 40,000 of those storage vessels. That’s enough DNA to fill about 330 very large (53-foot) shipping containers.

Based on the assumptions we made, the Death Star would need to store 8.84 exabytes of data for personnel and enough structural and engineering data for 50 billion battleships. All of which is dwarfed by the complete intragalactic database coming in at 40,000 yottabytes — a billion times bigger than all the other sources combined (which makes sense, when you consider it represents “all of the data from a million planets”). Oh, and another 40,000 cubic meters of storage space to back it up.

Wanted: IT support for the Death Star (must be willing to travel)

The ideal candidate will have database administration experience with an emphasis in the area of big data…really big data. Data compression skills are a plus.

May the force be with you.

This piece was a collaboration from the minds of database engineers at the FairCom office. Being a database company we have data on the mind even, in a fictional sense.