The Importance of Labeling

This model has been a workhorse producing labels for years.

This model has been a workhorse producing labels for years.

Recently I was labeling some bulk spices in the kitchen larder using a P-Touch Labeler  – can you tell the difference between fennel seed and caraway seed, well neither can I without a label –  And I thought about the times, places, whys and whens I’ve used a P-Touch Labeler and what I put on those labels.

Of course to label something you have to have a schema or a taxonomy. Sometimes it’s merely a matter of using the common name as with spices but other times you have to pack a large amount of information into a small useful label. Especially if you are labeling IT equipment, devices and cables. No one seriously disputes the need for labeled IT gear because we’ve all had to help troubleshoot an IT problem only to be faced with a snakes nest of cables and equipment without a single label in sight. Trying to figure which is which and what is what – can be a painful exercise in unplanned downtime.

In naming and labeling IT equipment there is generally two schools of thought – the obfuscation school and the transparency school. The Obfuscation school  thinks by making things difficult to understand it makes the network more difficult to infiltrate and thereby more secure. The other school of thought is the transparency school – which subscribes to the theory that clearly labeling and naming devices and equipment is makes things easier to support, not just today but also into the future.

I’ve never felt that the obfuscation school of thought made much sense. Even when there were only a few servers or devices in an organization – using names like cartoon characters really only makes sense to the one or two IT people who named everything. It’s painful to end-users who have to remember that: Bugs Bunny is the Database server; Pluto is the File Server and the Hulk is the printer. 

Since obfuscation makes it hard to understand a device purpose or function from the name alone, it might help make a network slightly more secure because a human hacker choosing targets wouldn’t know which device was worth the time to attempt to hack.  This might have made sense back in the early days of the Internet and IT when hacking was a labor intensive and slow process. But now with automation – it doesn’t really matter what you name something because the large numbers of software auto-bots are scanning and testing of your network and those tools couldn’t care less what something is named. They really only see an IP address before going through a logic sequence trying to figure out which vulnerability your system has that it can exploit before either reporting back the vulnerability details or by beginning the appropriate hack all by itself.

Thus the obfuscation school of naming is actually more harmful than helpful because of the needless complexity it introduces into your network. Making things needlessly complex actually hurts your company and helps your attackers. If you only have 2 servers and a router/firewall your IT staff can keep track of them just fine, but if you have 100 network devices, 200 servers, 500 desktops and a staff of 8,  it’s nigh on impossible to remember what the function of Bugs Bunny is or why the Beatles server is named after the Beatles. Which means that the ongoing maintenance, upgrades, patching, and bug-fixing is likely to be missed completely or haphazardly done. Which means that your organization will be penetrated and all of your company’s digital assets will be at risk and possibly your reputation as well. It’s not a matter of if it will be penetrated, it is only a matter of until it will be penetrated and how much damage will be done.

In contrast a transparent naming schema makes things easier to support for your IT staff and easier for end-users to know which printer is where. Your staff and users may have to learn the naming schema but a logical and straight-forward schema can be learned and remembered in just a few minutes. Everyone has a different philosophy but something simple and in tune with both the scale of your organization and with your organization’s needs is most appropriate.

Are all servers in one place – well then a place identifier probably isn’t needed unless you want to architect in future expansion possibilities. Are your servers only in a few major cities – then maybe airport codes are the way to go to designate place.  And so on down the line. Of course whatever system you implement has to have room to change and grow with time along with flexibility for unforeseen devices and functions.

A central character in the web comic series and a great gift from co-workers fondly remembered.

A central character in the web comic series and a great gift from co-workers fondly remembered.

I helped design a naming schema at Zany Brainy, a children’s toy retailer,  that took into account – servers, routers, firewalls, desktops, laptops, registers, locations and function. This naming schema helped immensely when supporting  a company that grew from 50 stores in 1998 to over 200 stores in the year 2000. Of course there were some legacy names that I couldn’t update but the naming schema helped create order out of what had been chaos before I arrived. People routinely had to ask each other what share did what and what printer name printed where, etc. Since I wanted to minimize end-user distraction given the pace of work Zany Brainy was experiencing, I overlaid the old schema with the new schema to give users time to adjust to the change.

 As a going away present from my team and colleagues at Zany Brainy I received a small stuffed animal called a Dust Puppy from the web cartoon User Friendly (you should check it out. It’s super funny and its humor holds up over time).  Aside from the cute little character they also printed out its own little label using the labeling taxonomy I created and instituted at Zany Brainy. It’s still hanging in my office as a memento of a great group of people. Its name is HODSTPUPPY.

Of course IT isn’t the only place where labeling is useful.  A high school friend who is now a Montessori school teacher recently talked about the important of labeling because it helps some kids read sooner – I’m sure there is a lot of  theory behind that statement that I’m cutting out, but it makes sense. She labels every single thing in her classroom – door, window, sink, book, blackboard, table, etc. We did the same thing ourselves when we were learning Portuguese for a trip to Brazil. One of our textbook came with 100 labels you could post all over your house – lamp, door, window, stove, etc. – in an effort to learn some of the more common nouns.

We greatly enjoyed our trip to Brzil and were able to test out our language skills in total immersion environment since we met very few english speakers in Recife or Porto De Galinhas. We found out we could rattle off strings of Portuguese nouns but that our verb usage lagged behind. We ended up sounding like 2-year-olds speaking only nouns with just a few verbs besides Eu quero (I want) . Our typical order at the breakfast buffet was ” Suco de laranja e  agua, por favor. Obrigado.” (orange juice and water, please. Thank you.) Elegant it was wasn’t, but luckily please in Portuguese is the same as please in Spanish and a well-timed Por Favor followed by a heart-felt Obrigado (thank you) went a long way with Brazilians. After all Please and Thank you are magic words in any language.

Where have you used, or not used, labeling? Any good stories around labels? Are you a P-Touch fan? Let me know. -t

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