When Your Naming Scheme Runs Dry

The group of system administrators I worked with for over a decade had a tradition of giving Unix computers host names that followed a different theme for each cluster of computers.

We started out as students running the computer labs for the College of Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park in the late 1980s. Our first public computer lab was a dozen or so Sun 3/50 and 3/60 workstations named after Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Host names included shire, bilbo, gloin, rivendell, etc.

When the Sun 3’s became obsolete, we turned them into X terminals connecting to several Sparcstation servers, which got their own naming scheme: coke, pepsi, jolt, and mountain-dew. We could have kept adding soda names for awhile, but we didn’t need many servers for that lab.

In the staff office (the “Hackers Pitt”, with spelling from Buckaroo Banzai), the Sparcstations we got for testing and software development were called tweak, twiddle, and frob. Good thing we didn’t need to come up with any more names in that series!

Here are a couple of pictures of the Hackers Pitt. Dave, Josh, and Chris:

Kurt, Dave, and Randall:

Later, we opened up another lab, consisting of Decstations, I think. We decided to go with names of computer languages as the naming scheme, so we had workstations called basic, cobol, lisp, perl, etc. There was a networked Postscript laser printer in the lab, and someone got the bright idea to give it a name in the same scheme, so naturally it had to be called postscript! A few months later, though, we had to rename it, because some software would get confused and malfunction when encountering a printer queue called postscript.

Aerospace Engineering named their computers after airplanes. Their Sun3 server was called hellcat, a WWII fighter.

There was one department in the College of Engineering that simply numbered their workstations: Chemical Engineering, whose computers were named cm##. The student sysadmins didn’t like that scheme much, because it was hard to keep those computers straight. Their names had no memorable personalities, so we had trouble remembering whether we were supposed to do something to cm18 or cm19, or cm23 or cm32.

Within a couple of years, many of us started work at UUNET and created one of the first commercial web hosting services. We took our penchant for naming schemes with us. Here’s a picture of Josh, Chris, and Kurt in Kurt’s office at UUNET assembling some servers:

The infrastructure servers (email, rdist, backups, etc.) had names of butlers from literature: jeeves, nestor, smithers, alfred. That was a clever but very restrictive scheme. It turns out there aren’t very many well-known butlers in literature. Now there’s a Wikipedia article listing them, but at the time we were beating our heads against the wall trying to think of more.

For Kerberos (secure login) servers, the list was the most limited. The first one was called keymaster (from Ghostbusters). When we added a second one as a backup, we had to make up a name. Would it be keyslave or keyminor? Hmm, maybe that wasn’t such a great idea.

For customer web servers, we decided on a larger class of cleverly appropriate names: spider names. The first few were easy: charlotte, blackwidow, brownrecluse, tarantula, trapdoor, funnelweb. After exhausting the well-known ones, we had to get more creative or obscure: peterparker, banana, garden, huntsman, crab. Customers had to login or FTP to the machine’s name to administer their servers, and it felt a little silly to tell them their web server was hosted on, say, banana. Who actually knows there’s such a thing as a banana spider? As we got more customers, we wasted quite a bit of time researching and compiling lists of spider species so we’d have enough names for new servers we were bringing online.

It all started out as good fun, but these days I’d just call them all web001, web002, mail, etc. and be done with it. No creative naming scheme will scale to hundreds of computers.

I confess that at home, I adopted a naming scheme based on classical elements: fire, water, air, earth, and a few more inspired by that pattern. I haven’t changed it partly because the limitations of that scheme help motivate me to not keep too many computers at home.

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