One of the challenges I see in organizations that I work with is the lack of naming conventions for various environments -- or sometimes naming conventions that provide little or no value.

For about the last ten years, I've been a strong proponent of a simple "-suffix" naming convention that is not only very easy to learn (and remember!) but also makes things incredibly obvious to all team members and stakeholders on a project.

Most enterprise IT organizations typically have a naming convention for servers that includes things like the Active Directory domain the server is a member of, the role of the server, and usually some unique identifier to distinguish multiple servers in a farm. Other "ingredients" such as the datacenter the server is physically located in may also be included.

For example, my favorite fictitious manufacturing company, Fabrikam Technologies, has Production servers named:

  • FAB-DC-01 (the first domain controller for the FABRIKAM domain),
  • FAB-DC-02,
  • FAB-WEB-01 (the first Web server in a farm),
  • FAB-WEB-02,
  • FAB-SQL-01A (the first node in a SQL Server cluster, for which the cluster is named FAB-SQL-01),
  • FAB-SQL-01B,
  • etc.

This is a great start. As you can see from these examples, it's pretty easy to tell what the role of each server is.

However, in any organization of reasonable size, we certainly need more than just the Production environment (PROD). At a minimum, I recommend using a Test environment (TEST) and a Development environment (DEV). Note that this is in addition to individual developer environments -- which I typically refer to as "local" evironments (LOCAL). Depending on how much parallel development is planned -- and the corresponding release schedule -- you might also need a Maintenance environment (MAINT). However, many organizations can function effectively with just the DEV-TEST-PROD triad.

So this begs the question, what names should we use for DEV and TEST?

Here is what I recommend:

Monikers in the Development environment utilize a “-dev” suffix. For example, the Web server in DEV corresponding to the FAB-WEB-01 server in PROD is named FAB-WEB-01-DEV. Likewise, the SQL Server in the Development environment is named FAB-SQL-01A-DEV. Note that typically Development environments do not have a cluster, but I still recommend following the same naming convention and even adding a DNS entry for the DEV "cluster" name (e.g. FAB-SQL-01-DEV). Test environments often do have a SQL Server cluster configuration (which is a great place to validate your failover configuration and load testing).

Host headers in the Development environment also follow the “-dev” naming convention. For example, if the internal name of the Fabrikam Web site in Production is http://fabrikam, then http://fabrikam-dev is the corresponding URL used in the Development environment.

In order to distinguish sites on the local development VMs, the “-local” suffix is used. For example, http://fabrikam-local is the URL on an individual developer’s VM corresponding to http://fabrikam in Production. The %WINDIR%\System32\Drivers\etc\hosts file is then used to associate these URLs with the loopback address (127.0.0.1). [Be sure you are aware of the workaround in KB 896861 when using the loopback address.]

Similarly, monikers and host headers in the Test environment utilize a “-test” suffix (e.g. FAB-WEB-01-TEST, FAB-SQL-01A-TEST, and http://fabrikam-test).

Also note that organizations typically create separate service accounts within Active Directory for the Development, Test, and Production environments (and if you are not currently doing this, I strongly recommend it). For example, suppose FABRIKAM\svc-web is the service account for the application pool running http://fabrikam in Production. Then we would expect the Web site in DEV to be running as FABRIKAM\svc-web-dev and the site in TEST to be running as FABRIKAM\svc-web-test.

This ensures that only the minimal number of people need to know the passwords for a particular environment. For example, either the whole Development team -- or just a small subset of team leads -- needs to know the password for FABRIKAM\svc-web-dev, but they certainly don't know the password for FABRIKAM\svc-web-test (since that environment is managed by the Test team). Likewise, the Test team had better not know the password for the service account in Production (since -- at least hopefully -- that environment is owned by a separate Release Management team).

It is also important to point out how this naming convention is applied to fully qualified domain names (FQDNs). For example, suppose the external address of http://fabrikam is http://www.fabrikam.com. What then should we use for the corresponding FQDN in DEV, or should we even configure an FQDN for DEV? The answer to that latter question is a resounding "Yes!" and the answer to the former is http://www-dev.fabrikam.com. Note that we almost certainly won't to expose DEV on the Internet -- although we may choose to expose TEST ( http://www-test.fabrikam.com)

The primary reason I recommend using these FQDNs (aside from the fact that we are following the simple "-suffix" naming convention) is that browsers behave differently between intranet names (e.g. http://fabrikam-dev) and FQDNs (e.g. http://www-dev.fabrikam.com). In other words, when you are trying to simulate a problem on the external site, you should ensure that you are simulating the same security "zone" in DEV, or even in your local environment (e.g. http://www-local.fabrikam.com).

Lastly, I want to mention documentation. Whenever I sit down to write an Installation Guide -- or similar documentation -- I typically only specify the values for the Production environment, even though I fully expect the document to also be used to install and configure the Test and Development environments. I simply include a brief section at the beginning of the document describing the naming convention and that it is the responsibility of the developer or tester to modify the server names, host headers, and service accounts appropriately as he or she is following along when configuring DEV or TEST.

Since we typically have "infrastructure models" (i.e. Visio diagrams showing the physical architecture of DEV, TEST, and PROD), identifying servers and host headers in various environments is really straightforward.