At some point or another, we’ve all been faced with the ominous screen asking us to name a device. Whether it be a NetBIOS name or a DNS hostname, in those critical minutes we’ve been under as much pressure as any other time in our careers. What should we call this thing? Should I name it something memorable? Should it be useful? What about some kind of descriptive codename? I wanted to share a few things with you that I’ve found over the years that might get a chuckle or two. Hopefully, they’ll also serve as a yardstick for naming things in the future.
More often than not, desktops that are deployed straight out of the box keep the name that they were programmed with at the factory. This can be some strange combination of manufacturer or serial number or phases of the moon. Unless you’re on top of things or you have a VAR doing the installation for you (yay me!), you’ve left the name alone because it’s something that you don’t necessarily care about. Infrastructure devices, on the other hand, are devices that have to be named to function. These are the ones that engender the most thought into what they should be called. My first run-in with an odd naming convention came back in high school. When I was but a wee lad trying out this scary Internet thing for the first time (through Compuserve, no less), I started emailing a friend that went to more tech-savvy school. Her email address was hosted by the local university on a mail server they built. It seems that the seven mail servers that hosted the university and its users were named after Disney’s seven dwarfs. In particular, this server was named Bashful. I always thought that was interesting, since my friend was anything but bashful. As time went on, I realized that people started naming their computers funny things because they wanted to remember what it did or make it have some kind of special significance to them. When it came time to name a whole set of networked computers, that’s when you usually delved into the depths of literature or popular culture to come up with naming sets. Groups of collected individuals of diverse skill sets that help you remember what it is that your devices do. It also affords you the chance to show how clever you think you might be.
Far and away, the most popular naming set for servers/routers/stuff is Greek Mythology. I’ve worked on more Apollos and Zeus’s and Athenas that I have any other device in history. Usually, you can figure out what a server is doing based on which deity it’s named after. Zeus is the domain controller/master server. Athena is the ticketing database or Sharepoint server. Hermes is the VoIP server. Funny thing though. You hardly ever see Hades doing something. Usually, it’s a server on the fifth or sixth reload that they don’t really care about. Also, don’t ask what Tartarus is doing. It’s never anything good, I assure you. While the Greeks are popular when it comes to server naming, I’m seeing a huge uptick in Lord of the Rings characters. This is a bit more problematic for me, since I’m not usually inclined to figure out why someone named a server Merry or Pippin. Depending on how much server sprawl you have, you may even need to reach down to find characters that weren’t in the movies, like Tom Bombadil. Of course, every time I see a LotR naming setup, I very much want to change the name of the primary domain controller to Mordor and then disable all user accounts on it. Why? Because no one simply logs into Mordor.
On the flip side, I’ve seen users that understand that naming things after Greek gods and Ian McKellen characters can be a bit confusing at times. So they’ve swung to the complete opposite side of the spectrum and come up with their own naming convention for things. Normally, I applaud this kind of forward-thinking approach. However, if your code names only make sense to you, it’s not much better than naming your servers after Best Support Actor Academy Award winners. For instance, does the server name SW2K332DC050 jump right out and tell you anything meaningful? It took me many tries to finally figure out that this particular server is running Windows Server 2003 32-bit and is serving as a domain controller. Of course, that was when the server was first installed. Now, it’s a Windows Server 2008 R2 machine that’s not a domain controller and is instead running some web-based application. Faced with a whole page full of names like that is like trying to read the phone book. Someone coming into this environment would need a cheat sheet or at least access to the server admin team to figure out what server you were working on.
I’m a huge fan of naming conventions that convey the device’s type and purpose on one short line. Being a VAR, it’s usually critical to me to be able to scan an environment quickly and determine what exactly I’m working with. Calling a switch 7K-Core-1 allows me to know almost instantly that I’m working on a Nexus 7000 in the core and that there should be at least one other switch (Core-2) somewhere close by. Naming a switch 2960S-IDC1-1 is almost as effective but can lead to issues when I don’t know where IDC1 is located. Since I work mostly with K-12 education institutions, I usually fall back on familar location info, such as 3560-Lib-1 or 4500-Caf-2 to help me figure out where I need to start my search for these devices. I’ve always told people that my documentation habits arise from the need for me to remember exactly what was going on when I did something six months ago. This goes for naming conventions as well. I may be looking at this device from a stuffy hotel room three time zones away and not have access to all of the pertinent information before a critical change must be made. The more descriptive I can make a device name, the better the chances that I won’t accidentally remove EIGRP from the core router.
What types of naming conventions do you use? Are you a dwarf/deity/fictional character type of person? How about washing the hostname through an MD5 hash tool before applying it? Maybe you just name it the first thing you see on your desk when you power it up. I’d be curious to see what your ideas are.