What is the largest possible Size of a Single File?

Kids from 2000s, you may not remember a time before a 120 GB hard drives were the bare minimum, but other of you from 90s and before may actually recall the days where 2 GB was an extravagant luxury these days.

Though it isn’t uncommon to see multi terabyte drives in even mid range computers, due to the exploding file sizes from ever more elaborate PC games and 4K movies.

I mean a single 2 Hours of 4K film on Blu-ray can take up around 45 GB of space, which got us thinking,

Exactly, how big could one single file get?

How big could one single file get? Is there a hard limit? Is it bound only by the capacity of your storage medium? I mean could you theoretically sit there and watch every movie, TV show and Cat video ever packed into one Mp4 file provided, you had a hard drive and bucket of popcorn large enough.

Well, as it turns out the answer is complicated. There is actually a crucial limiting factor to file sizes. Your Storage device’s “file System“.

To learn more about File System you can read my blog on File Systems.

But putting it simply, File System is the scheme that your hard drive, SSD or memory card uses to organize and keep track of your files and one thing that most modern file systems do is keep records of how large each file is.

So that the user can manage his/her disk space and so the computer can keep track of how much space is being used in different physical parts of the drive. These size values are stored as either a 32 bit or a 64 bit value.

So, older operating systems like Windows 98 often used 32 bit file systems, FAT32 was the most common on home PCs in the late 90s. And actually still persists in some applications today.

But unfortunately, the highest value, you can express in 32 Bit is a little over 4.2 Billion meaning that the file size limit on many desktop computers used to be 4.2 GB. Which is less than a full single layer DVD.

So that clearly wouldn’t cut it these days. But ever since Windows XP, Microsoft has switched over its home operating systems to the NTFS file system, which supports 64-bit file sizes.

Something that would have caused slowdowns due to file system overhead on older PCs. So, nowadays the theoretical limit for a single NTFS file is over 18 Exabytes (18 Billion GB) enough to hold 400 million of those 4k movies that I mentioned earlier.

Though good luck finding a drive that large and anyway as with many other theoretical maximums the real-life limit is actually smaller.

Modern operating systems impose additional limits on file sizes with Windows 10 cutting you off at 17.5 TB, I mean that is still larger than any hard drive on the market at this time.

But years from now, we may have to rethink file systems, yet again if they figure a way for us to dump our consciousness onto a 100 exabyte DNA strorage thing.


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