Where does your NetID come from?

Russell Wells, Head of the Person Office

Russell Wells, Head of the Person Office

Have you ever wondered where your campus netID came from? There are few things on campus that are as ubiquitous as those short strings of letters (and for the unfortunate few, numbers) that make up the e-mails and online identification for all persons associated with the University.

Why aren’t netIDs consistent? Who decides this stuff? After being involved in one too many discussions about its mysterious origins, I decided to uncover the story of the Princeton netID.

The Genesis

Your netID was first born in an automated computer system based out of Princeton’s administrative office building in 701 Carnegie Center. A ten minute shuttle ride from campus, 701 Carnegie is home to the University’s Office of Information Technology (OIT). Russell Wells is the manager of the four-member (aptly named) Person Office, the OIT department tasked with managing the online accounts of all Princetonians, student, faculty, and staff. Wells sat down with me this past Friday to explain how exactly our netIDs are created.

The netID is like your online identity, explained Wells. Once the University gives you a netID, it is yours forever; no one else will ever be able to re-use it. Even if you were to come back as an employee of the University 20 years down the line, you would be given the same netID that you’re using now. The system works this way because the University doesn’t want people’s identities to be confused. Especially when it comes to e-mail, if netIDs were to be reused, a student in 2020 could be getting e-mails meant for some old alum.

This means that the University must generate over a thousand original netIDs every year.  Wells estimates that there are a couple hundred thousand netIDs floating around the digital universe, with the vast majority no longer in use.

When students, faculty, and staff members enter Princeton, their names are sent to the University’s Oracle Identity Manager. Identity Manager is the program that the University has used to generate netIDs since October 2011. The earlier system (the one used to generate netIDs for current sophomores, juniors, and seniors) was a hodgepodge of different programs, operating with a slightly different set of rules.

701 Carnegie Center, home to OIT

In Oracle and the previous system, your name is stripped down to its bare parts. Suffixes are cut off (bye, bye, Jr.), hyphens are thrown out, and prefixes (like “Von” and “Mac”) are deleted. Left with the bare alphabetic minimum of your lowercase first, middle, and last names (all transformed to lowercase letters), it is now time to make your netID.

Rules of the NetID

The automated generation system follows many rules.  A netID cannot be longer than eight characters or shorter than two characters. Also, since the system was updated in October 2011, it will no longer cut off your first or last name. Quite cleverly, there are also some combinations of letters that it knows not to put together, like if my name was “Amanda Sabrina Smith” and my netID was my three initials– you get the idea.

Within these rules, there is a leveled order of combinations by which the computer tries to generate a netID. It goes through the ordered preferences, checking to make sure that a netID is not already taken. The first available option that also fits the length requirement is your new netID. The preference order is as follows:

     Preference                                                         (ex:) John Henry Matthew Smith

  1. First initial, last name                                                                           jsmith
  2. First initial, middle initial, last name                                             jhsmith
  3. First initial, mid. initial, any other initial, last name               jhmsmith
  4. Last name                                                                                                  smith
  5. First, Middle, and Last initials                                                           jhs
  6. First initial, last initial                                                                           js
  7. First name, last initial                                                                           johns
  8. First name, second initial, last initial                                             johnhs
  9. First name, any other initials                                                            johnhms
  10. First name, last name                                                                           johnsmith
  11. First name                                                                                                 john
  12. First name, middle name, last name                                              johnhenrysmith
  13. First, Middle, and Last initials, with 2-999                                  jhs278
  14. “Random alphanumeric string [8] characters in length”      hf9j26kw

The rules and requirements for netIDs have changed throughout the years. For example, if your netID was created before October 2011 you could have ended up with one that cuts off your last name. This happened to Jeremy Rosenthal, Class of 2015, whose netID  is “jsrosent.” Similarly, in the old system when the netID reached the thirteenth level, the system would spell out the number appended to the person’s name. An example of this is the netID of Salvador Martinez, Class of 2015, whose netID is “smthree,” with the number 3 spelled out. Even earlier, when the netID identification system was first created, netIDs were assigned as a random string of numbers and letters; this is why John Nash’s netID is “xkjfnj.”

The Perfect NetID

Over the years, there has been some controversy over what combination of identity markers makes the ideal netID, says Wells. When the Person Office first requested input from several University departments to determine the optimal netID combination, the original consensus was that “first name, last initial” was the best option. However, most people today think that “first initial, last name” is the preferred arrangement.

That said, everyone agrees netIDs with numbers are the worst. Unfortunately, although there are few students now that have netIDs with numbers, the percentage of students with netIDs like this will continue to increase as more netIDs are created and the system runs out of open options higher up on the list. Sucks to be John Smith in the class of 2157– or should I say, “js4261”?

Want to change your netID?

The Person Office receives around 50 requests a year from students and faculty wanting to change netIDs.  Interestingly, a common request from faculty members is that they don’t want netIDs to contain their first name. While the OIT website says that netID changes are only made for “compelling or urgent reasons”, Wells says that he fulfills all of the requested changes. From the Person Office’s point of view, as long as the change is possible, there is no reason why someone should be left unhappy.

Currently, if students or faculty wish to change netIDs, there is no way for them to determine by themselves what alternative netIDs are available. The Person Office is in the process of putting together an online application where persons wishing to change their netIDs can search whether their preferred alternatives are available and request that change. They hope to implement this application by next year’s Class of 2017.

So yes, there is logic behind our netIDs. And yes, if you don’t like the one granted to you by the University as a freshman, you are more than welcome to change it. But just be grateful that the system didn’t need to resort to spitting out “adsfk56s.”

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