January 30, 2009, 10:19 AM —
When I graduated from college, my parents bought me a new computer as a graduation gift (a Power Computing Mac clone, if you remember that odd little interlude in Apple's history). It was an order of magnitude more powerful than my Mac Plus, and I was so thrilled to have it that I decided that it would be auspicious to christen it. Since I was in grad school studying ancient history at the time, I changed the name of the hard drive from whatever the boring default was (it may have actually just been "HARD DRIVE") to "Kleopatra," using the more correct Greek spelling of the ancient queen's name.
Over the next few years -- especially after I fled academia -- I wondered if maybe I should cast aside this little bit of whimsy, but I did like thinking of my computer as more than just another grey-beige box of silicon taking up desk space. So Kleopatra stayed, and when I got a second internal hard drive, I named it after her husband Marc Antony, just to keep her company. I thought that this affectation made me unique and just a little bit weird. But then I got my first real job.
The job was as a copy editor at a San Francisco Web publishing startup, and I quickly learned that all of the Unix servers upon which our internal and external processes depended had names. And not boring names like PRODUCTION_SERVER; these machines were all named after African nations. This didn't exactly turn every trip into the office into an exotic vacation, but dealing every day with machines named Rwanda and Angola at least gave us something concrete to rant about when tech difficulties beset our work. (I hope the good people of Angola weren't hurt by the invectives we hurled when their country's namesake computer went out of commission for good, leaving us in two weeks of limbo before we eventually replaced it with Congo.) But more to the point, it taught me about the feeling of of hominess and community you get from a consistent naming system for your machines.
When our business unit was merged with another one back east, and they started foisting their own, non-geographical naming conventions onto us -- well, that's when we knew that an era was ending.
The spy who named me
As it happens, such a naming system wasn't unique to our little office. Sandra Henry-Stocker was our company's Unix admin when I started that job, though she wasn't the originator of the African naming scheme. However, she did once work with a similar server naming scheme at another workplace with a slightly more exciting mission. "When I worked at the CIA," she says, "the office I worked in named its servers after states -- like Alaska and NewHampshire. We'd briefly considered wineries, but figured most of the staff would have no hope of pronouncing them, so we abandoned that idea pretty quickly."
It didn't stop there, though: "Client systems in each subnet were named after cities in the associated states. So we had systems with names like Juneau and Portsmouth. Some analysts grumbled that they wanted to 'move,' but it was easy to tell which subnet a particular analyst was on just by knowing his or her workstation's name and a bit of geography. The funny part was the looks I'd get in the elevator when I'd say to a coworker with a tone of annoyance something like 'I don't know what we're going to do about Maine! We're seeing crashes every day now.'"