What’s in a Name?

There’s a famous saying among computer scientists that one of the two hardest problems in their field is how to name things. They’re certainly not the only ones. In fact, I’d be surprised if there’s a single person in IBS who hasn’t had to struggle with a naming convention. Variables in code, folders on the O: drive, IBS administrative policies, and so many other things all need to be named such that their function is easy to understand at a quick glance. They have to contain a lot of information in as little space as possible while still allowing for additional related items, easy sorting, and categorization.

If you’ve been around IBS for a while, you probably remember the venerable P drive. Attaching it to your computer for the first time required typing in “ibscrs.colorado.edu,” but the real name of the machine that hosted it was “Ogre.” You may also remember logging into the shared computing environment on Flash, and some people may have even done some computing on Galactus or Quicksilver. Fans of comic books will have already figured out what the naming convention for servers in the department was at this point, although I had to go google Ogre to find that he is, in fact, a comic book character. At this point, only one server, named after Green Lantern, survives from that era of names.

Over the last three years, if you’ve had to manually map the O or R drives, or if you look in the lower right-hand corner of your desktop when logged into Citrix (and you grew up in America), you have probably figured out the naming convention that replaced comic book characters, thanks to Jim, Mitch, and Ashton. While CRS keeps Mahna Mahna, Miss Piggy, Beaker, and Bunsen for ourselves, you’ve almost certainly seen Gonzo, Floyd Pepper, and many of the other Muppets. It makes for some fun support calls with Dell: “I’m sorry, sir, did you say I should type Fozzie Bear into the connection window?”

More recently, we’ve had to move to less silly naming conventions for a variety of reasons–OIT would like all of our new servers to be prefixed with “IBS” in order to fit with their broader campus naming convention, for instance–but the big thing pushing us in that direction is space. The Wikipedia list of Muppets lists just over 100 names, and I have often plumbed the depths of that list to find Muppets I’d never heard of, like Johnny Fiama and Sal Minella. Many of the names (“Bill,” “Jill” or “Denise”) aren’t obviously Muppets out of context. Some interfere with our obligation not to occupy names that might be needed by another group, like “Chip,” “GIL,” and “Mulch;” and some, like “Flower-Eating Monster,” would exceed the 16-character limit we have on naming computers. That leaves us with around 50-75 usable names.

A combination of modern server infrastructure practices and IBS’s obligation to keep some datasets on separate servers pushes us toward a larger number of named servers: we fluctuate between 85 and 100 virtual servers that need unique names on any given day (stored on only a handful of physical machines!). So while the Muppets have served us well these last three years, expect to see a lot more “IBS-XA-03” and “IBS-MAXQDA”-style names around here!

Do you remember other naming conventions used for IBS computing resources? Let me know by email, and your comment may be featured in a future newsletter!