Have you ever wondered what they really are – bits, bytes and binary? Similar in sound, very different in what they mean, this article will introduce you to computers at their core: we̵
Bit and Bits!
Computers process data differently than humans. But have you ever wondered how these massive amounts of data are actually stored? Welcome to computers are their core: bits. Every piece of information in most current computer systems, be it your desktop PC, your mobile or the intelligent screen on your smart fridge, is stored by means of ‘bits’.
The most detailed piece of information a computer can do “understand” and process is one bitBut what’s a bit? How can we quantify a little bit? It’s actually quite simple. Imagine you have a small piece of metal (of a shape that can be magnetized) and a magnet. When you magnetize the piece of metal we will call this condition magnetized or
1If we do not magnetize the piece of metal, or return a magnetized piece of metal to a degaussed state, we will call such a degaussed state
This is essentially what a bit is – a magnetized or demagnetized piece of metal. So it seems we can’t store a lot of information in one bit: just one
0 and a
1 – two possible states. Instead, let’s take eight bits and see what we can do with them.
Byte and bytes!
When we combine eight bits, we form a byte. A byte is a human concept, not one that a computer can understand at its core. Very early computer developers decided to make 8-bit bytes. Let’s see how many combinations we can make using eight bits set to a state of
0000 0000 = 0 0000 0001 = 1 0000 0010 = 2 0000 0011 = 3 ... 0000 1000 = 8 0000 1001 = 9 ... 0100 0000 = 64 ... 1000 0000 = 128 1000 0001 = 129 1000 0010 = 130 ... 1111 1111 = 255
On the left is the binary number, on the right is the decimal number.
There are exactly
256 possible combinations (
0 to 255Even though we only have eight small pieces of metal and one magnet, we can now store 255 different states simply by magnetizing or demagnetizing one of the eight pieces of metal. Excellent? Maybe, but when you consider that a simple PDF file with a few scanned pages could easily be 10 megabytes (= 10,000,000 bytes or 80,000,000 bits), you might wonder how each computer could do 80 million tiny pieces of metal process 😉
Even more amazingly, many people have an Internet connection of 50 Mbps (megabits per second) or more. 50 Mbps is 6,250,000 bytes per second, which in turn is an astonishing 50,000,000 bits per second. In this case, the data is not stored on magnetized pieces of metal.
The next question that comes to mind is, where are these pieces written to? Any kind of storage in a computer system. For example to the main memory chips in your computer, but just as much to a physical disk, for example of the older type HDD (Hard Disk Drive) with a literally spinning magnetizable disk in it and a small head would move back and forth as the disks spinning at 5400 , 7000 or 10000 revolutions per minute and bits on or off magnetized (
A computer also has other places where it can store information, for example the Level 1 and Level 2 (and where applicable Level 3 etc.) caches in a CPU (Central processing unitSo what are some of the top speeds at which computers can actually magnetize and demagnetize bits?
Welcome to the fastest drives in the world: a fast modern NVMe (a kind of Solid State Drive, which in turn is a successor to the hard drive) can achieve a sequential write speed of 7,000 MB / s, that is 56,000,000,000 physical magnetic bit writes per second. Incredible, but real.
Sometimes it’s good to go back a little bit in history and how things work, to appreciate what has been accomplished, and to realize the incredible pace at which we are making progress. This is really what happens in your computer every second, and even more and faster, when you are dealing with an intense workload. Cool?
Now that we’ve looked at bits and bytes, we can take a small step up and go to Binary. Binary as a term can be used as an indication of a binary number (similar to our one byte example above where we went from
0000 0000 (0 decimal) to
1111 1111 (255 decimal), or as flow, single data or a state.
For example, we can talk about one binary data stream when we talk about zeros and ones moving over a computer wire. In such a case (a binary data stream), the state of the bits is not magnetized or demagnetized as when it is stored in a disk or cache, but rather a voltage that is live (for example, +5 volts) to enter a state of
1, and zero volts to indicate a condition of
We can use the word binary to refer to data that is stored as binary (for example on a disk), or as a state, for example an executable file on a computer is often referred to as a binary file. It will be all these different uses of binary, it will take some time to get used to the jargon.
In this article, we’ve explored the nitty-gritty dynamics of what’s going on at the core of the computer: Simple bits, magnetized or demagnetized on disk, or voltage on or off flowing across the wire, are the most basic units of computing and data storage. We then went a step further and got to bytes and how a single byte can hold a value from 0 to 255 by turning 8 individual bits on or off. We finally explored binary and the many ways the word binary can be used.
Next time at the cafe, tell some of your less experienced friends a story about bits and bytes and binary.