Neatly naming network nodes

Experience has taught us that it is as easy to choose bad names as it is to choose good ones

On one of my favorite lists, we just had an amusing discussion about naming computers. It seems that unless someone is running a server farm or hosting facility, where logical organization is de rigeur and computers are numbered according to some strict plan, then anyone with any poetry in their soul feels they must find "good" names with some kind of consistency for their hardware.

Back in the mid-1980s when we started Novell UK, I used the names of books, so our servers were named things like Zenandtheartofmotorcyclemaintenance and Lifetheuniverseandeverything ... at least that's what they were named until a few weeks after my first tech hires arrived. It didn't take long for my staff to settle in and revolt, taking the servers hostage and changing their names to things that were far less amusing but much easier to type.

The names I used were obviously "bad" names, but as the machines were, for that brief period, only my concern, the ridiculously long names hadn't been a problem for me. But the naming of computers quickly did become an issue in the computer industry in general and in 1990 a Request for Comments on the topic of naming computers appeared.

Yes, RFC 1178 "Choosing a name for your computer," begins by noting: "In order to easily distinguish between multiple computers, we give them names. Experience has taught us that it is as easy to choose bad names as it is to choose good ones. This essay presents guidelines for deciding what makes a name good or bad."

In the section on what not to do when it comes to naming computers, the RFC gives an example: "A distributed database had been built on top of several computers. Each one had a different name. One machine was named 'up', as it was the only one that accepted updates. Conversations would sound like this: 'Is up down?' and 'Boot the machine up', followed by 'Which machine?' ... While it didn't take long to catch on and get used to this zaniness, it was annoying when occasionally your mind would stumble, and you would have to stop and think about each word in a sentence. It is as if, all of a sudden, English has become a foreign language."

While there are obvious problems with bad names, there are times when they have their uses. For example, one of my list friends mentioned someone who named her machine "Ichthyosaur" on the premise "that no one could spell it so no one was likely to use her workstation as a spare compute engine. She said it worked."

Over the last two decades every network I've had any control over has been subjected to a "Carrollian" naming scheme, by which I mean all machine names are derived for Lewis Carroll's works, including "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Jabberwocky." For those of you unfamiliar with "Jabberwocky":

Twas brillig, and the slithy tovesDid gyre and gimble in the wabe;All mimsy were the borogoves,And the mome raths outgrabe.

Thus, my network CIFS group and Wi-Fi SSID have almost always been "Wabe" (although in a recent move the SSID acquired the name of one of our dogs) and the servers have always included a Gyre and a Gimble, while desktops included Momes, Raths and Outgrabe, while laptops include Pig (an annoyingly slow netbook) and Pepper.

Oddly enough and for reasons I'm not clear on, our iPads and iPhones didn't get subverted by this scheme and wound up, rather boringly, with Apple's default naming thus, "Mark's iPad" and "Steph's iPhone." This needs to be fixed.

Anyway, on the list we got to discussing other choices for naming conventions. Someone suggested "-id" words: tepid, morbid, frigid, rigid, horrid, sordid, rancid, lurid, acrid, florid, arid, carotid look promising. While another participant suggested Norse artifacts and personae, "mjollnir for my laptop, mimir for the rooted Kindle. I'm reserving ratatosk for a smartphone, if I ever get one," and yet another said they used medical terms: "I already have rupture, puncture, fracture, and seizure, as my house DHCP group."

But, of course, naming gets more complex when you have something like a large departmental structure to reflect. A list friend said he'd seen authors and their characters used, thus in my system a central server might be "Carroll" with underling computers named BilltheLizard, Mouse, Hatter and so on, while sibling systems could include Dickens (under which would be Dodger, Cratchit, Miss Haversham, etc.), Tolkein (Frodo, Bilbo, Gollum, etc.), and so on. He pointed out that if another layer is needed "a straightforward extension is authors/book/characters."

That's a great scheme, but I think hierarchies are not often needed and hard to make work because networks change so often. Other single level choices that could be amusing include superheroes, cartoon characters, Bond villains, porn stars (then you'd get messages to snicker at such as "ronjeremy is up"), or, for the more literary among you, you could use characters from Shakespeare or Thomas Pynchon.

I might be tempted, should I ever have the need, to use serial killers and their victims as a two-tier system (a list friend told me I was "a sick, magnificent bastard" for that scheme) but, for now, I'll stick with my "Carrollian" strategy.

So, what are you using for a naming convention or, better yet, what would you like to use?

Gibbs is named in Ventura, Calif. Your alias to and follow him on Twitter and (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

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Mark Gibbs

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