Hadoop: Toddler Talk Provides Big Data Name

Doug Cutting and Hadoop the elephant
Source: Doug Cutting
Doug Cutting and Hadoop the elephant

When you're creating a new way of storing and processing data for global business infrastructure, a little fun can go a long way toward relieving the pressure. No one knows that better than Doug Cutting, chief architect of Cloudera and one of the creators of the curiously named Hadoop.

When he was creating the open source software that supports the processing of large data sets, Cutting knew the project would need a good name. Fortunately, he had one up his sleeve—thanks to his son.

As much as 80 percent of data created each day is unstructured—and impossible to mine as a result. Hadoop brings structure to the chaos, helping to store the data sets across distributed clusters of servers, and at a much lower cost than with legacy servers. Hadoop has become an essential tool in the rise of big data that could unlock billions, if not trillions, of dollars in productivity. Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimates that Hadoop's market could reach $14 billion annually--$9 billion for the Hadoop platform and $5 billion for the analytics tools built on Hadoop.

The name, on the other hand, is a homey story going back 10 years—into the realm of a toddler's experimentation with old-fashioned human language. Cutting's son, then 2, was just beginning to talk and called his beloved stuffed yellow elephant "Hadoop" (with the stress on the first syllable).

"Being a guy in the software business, we're always looking for names," Cutting said. "I'd been saving it for the right time."

(Watch: Cloudera's Cutting Discusses Hadoop on CNBC)

Naming software is never easy. The name should lack specific connections but can't be ridiculous. It has to be easy to remember. Most important, it must be able to withstand changes in direction.

"The rules of names for software is they're meaningless because sometimes the use of a particular piece of software drifts, and if your name is too closely associated with that, it could end up being wrong over time," Cutting said.

The original Hadoop remained an active toy for Cutting's son for years, the entrepreneur was always mindful of the yellow elephant's potential as a brand name. As work began and Cutting considered finally using the name he had been guarding, he noticed the toy was being crammed inside a toilet paper roll and shot across the back yard.

That's when Hadoop was retired from his son's collection of playthings.

Hadoop the elephant
Source: Doug Cutting
Hadoop the elephant

Today, Hadoop the toy lives not on a shelf or in a case but in Cutting's sock drawer—a rather ignominious home for a company's namesake. Cutting lets it out occasionally, bringing it to conferences or appearances, where fans of the software pose with the cuddly yellow elephant.

Hadoop is hardly the first unusual name to be attached to a tech company, of course. Google was born from a misspelling of "googol" (1 followed by 100 zeros), which itself was invented when a mathematician was playing with his nephew and together they came up with a name for really big numbers.

Mozilla, the framework for the Firefox browser, was named when when Marc Andreessen came up with a Godzilla-like program that obliterated his first run at browser software (which was called Mosaic). Mosaic + Godzilla = Mozilla.

(Read More: With Big Data's Help, Companies Try to Outwit Mother Nature)

Though such whimsical names are often met with an eye roll, if the company or product is sound and timely, its name can become part of industry or popular lexicon. After all, "Google" has entered the dictionary as a transitive verb meaning to use that search engine to look for information on the Web.

"I like having the silly roots," Cutting said. "You want to keep some fun and levity in things. It's too easy to get too serious, especially when you're talking about enterprise business software. It's pretty serious stuff, pretty dry. ... It makes people who are working on it think they're having a little fun. It makes people feel more comfortable around the tech."

The son (who's now 12) to whom Hadoop once belonged is staying in the background, but he's not especially happy about it.

"I've tried to draw a line around not having my kid too associated with it," Cutting said. "He's always frustrated with this. He's always saying 'Why don't you say my name, and why don't I get royalties? I deserve to be famous for this, Dad.' "