Effective computer names with DNS aliases

If you have a computer in a network, it has a lot of different names and addresses. Most of them are chosen by the manufacturer, like the MAC address of the network device. Some are chosen by you, like the IP address in the local network. And some need to be chosen by you, like the computer’s name in your local DNS (domain name service).

A typical indicator for an under-managed network is the lack of sufficiently obvious computer names in it. You want to connect to the printer? 192.168.0.77 it is. You need to access the network drive? It is reachable under nas-producer-123.local. You can be sure that either of these names change as soon as anything gets modified in the network.

Not every computer in a network needs a never-changing, obvious name. If you connect a notebook for some hours, it can be addressable only by 192.168.0.151 and nobody cares. But there will be computers and similar network devices like printers that stay longer and provide services to others. These are the machines that require a proper name, and probably not only one.

Our approach is a layered one, with four layers:

  • MAC-address, chosen by the manufacturer
  • IP address, chosen by our DHCP
  • Device name, chosen by our DNS
  • Device aliases, chosen by our DNS

Of course, our DHCP and our DNS is told by our administrator what addresses and names to give out. Our IP addresses are partitioned into sections, but that is not relevant to the users.

The device name is a mapping of a name on an IP address. It is chosen by the administrator in case of a server/service machine. It will tell you about the primary service, like “printer0”, “printer1” or “nas0”. It is not a creative name and should not be remembered or used directly. If the machine has a direct user, like a workstation or a notebook, the user gets to choose the name. The only guideline is to keep it short, the rest is personal preference. This name should only be remembered by the user.

On top of the device name, each machine gets one or several additional DNS names, in the form of DNS aliases (CNAME records). These are the names we work with directly and should be remembered. Let’s see some examples:

I want to print on the laser printer: “laserprinter.local” is the correct address. It is an alias to printer0.local which is a mapping to 192.168.0.77 which resolves to a specific MAC address. If the laser printer gets replaced, every entry in this chain will probably change, except for one: the alias will point to the new printer and I don’t have to care much about it (maybe I need to update my driver).

I want to access the network drive: “nas.local” is one possibility. “networkdrive.local” is another one. Both point to “nas0” today and maybe “nas1” tomorrow. I don’t need to care which computer provides the service, because the service alias always points to the correct machine.

I want to connect to my colleague’s workstation: Because we have different naming preferences, I cannot remember that computer’s name. But I also don’t have to, because the computer has an alias: If my colleague’s name is “Joe”, the computer’s alias is “joe.local”, which resolves to his “totallywhackname.local”, which points to the IP address, etc. There is probably no more obvious DNS name than “joe.local”.

Another thing that we do is give a service its purpose as a name. This blog is run by wordpress, so we would have “wordpress.local”, but also “blog.local” which is the correct address to use if you want to access the blog. Should we eventually migrate our blog to another service, the “blog.local” address would point to it, while the “wordpress.local” address would still point to the old blog. The purpose doesn’t change, while the product that provides it might some day.

Of course, maintaining such a rich ecosystem of names and aliases is a lot of work. We don’t type our zone files directly, we use generators that supply us with the required level of comfort and clarity. This is done by one of our internal tools (if you remember the Sunzu blog post, you now know 2 out of our 53 tools). In short, we maintain a table in our wiki, listing all IP addresses and their DNS aliases and linking to the computer’s detail wiki page. From there, the tool scrapes the computer’s name and MAC address and generates configuration files for both the DHCP and DNS services. We can define our whole network in the wiki and have the tool generate the actual settings for us.

That way, the extra effort for the DNS aliases is negligible, while the positive effects are noticeable. Most network modifications can be done without much reconfiguration of dependent services or machines. And it all starts with alias names for your computers.

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