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Anthony Taylor [reviews]

Book review: Linux Administration Handbook Second Edition by Evi Nemeth, Garth Snyder, Trent R. Hein, et al

fsmsh.com/2147 [linux] [book-review] [administration]

In my geek career, I have been many things: DBA, programmer, help-desk, engineer, systems administrator. I have worked with VMS, MS-DOS, various flavors of UNIX, MS-Windows of all sorts, OS/2, and MPE/iX. I have had a wide and various and satisfying career.

I can tell you without reservation, systems administration was the hardest and most demanding of all those jobs.

The book’s cover

A systems administrator is generally all things to all people. In most cases, they are tech support. They are help desk. They are testers, and troubleshooters, and programmers. Good ones are also systems engineers, and the best are relied on by upper management to make IT decisions. Some of the worst are also relied on by upper management, but that usually ends in disaster, blame, tears, and recrimination.

There are very few books geared towards the systems administrator. Oh, sure, there’s a plethora of titles such as, “Administering Active Directory”, or “Managing Windows Networks”. In the end, these are usually books dedicated to a single program or technology.

Fortunately, there’s “Linux Administration Handbook”, by Evi Nemeth, Garth Snyder, Trent R. Hein, and a host of other contributors.

“Evi, Garth, and Trent taught me everything I know about GNU/Linux systems administration.”—Elvis

The contents

This is a hefty book, at 1000 pages exactly, not counting the “About the Authors” page or the roman-numeraled and extensive Contents section, but including the index. It’s heavy. This is a book not to be set aside lightly, as that’s physically impossible. It’s weight makes it practical for pressing two pieces of glued wood, or for chucking at ill-behaved dogs, such as my boykin spaniel Elvis.

If I were to choose one word to describe this book, other than “heavy”, I would choose “extensive”. This is a book that does not ignore history, but provides names, dates, and circumstances surrounding the otherwise-anonymous software we all know and love. Starting with a brief (very brief) history of GNU/Linux, the authors discuss sources of other information. The describe how to use man, and where to go for help in those rare times when man fails you. They describe how to do basic system administration tasks, such as managing user accounts, and managing hardware, and installing and upgrading software on production systems, and monitoring systems and security.

That’s just in the first chapter.

Then comes the fun stuff. Complete, in-depth descriptions of the boot-up and shut-down process. Discussions of various file systems, and how to use them properly. Installing new hardware. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to adding a disk. Another chapter provides a zoology of daemons. There are chapters on system performance, security, backup, the X Window system, serial devices...

If the subject falls under the realm of systems administration, there are probably at least a few pages dedicated to it in this book.

The book is very well laid out, considering the breadth of topics covered. There are thirty chapters, each with a distinct focus, grouped into three sections: Basic Administration, Networking, and Bunch O’ Stuff. Bunch O’ Stuff is just that. It even ends with a non-geek chapter: Management, Policy, and Politics, which discusses the business end of systems administration. This chapter is strangely compelling, covering topics such as disaster recovery, legal issues, and how the systems administrator fits into a typical organization.

This is not a comprehensive book, by any means. Although many alternatives are presented, some receive more attention than others. For instance, in the chapter covering email, the authors discuss Sendmail at length, and even spend eighteen pages on Postfix. Exim, however, is covered in only two pages. This is partly due to Exim’s comprehensive and clear on-line documentation, to which the authors refer the interested reader. But, this is a common theme. So don’t be disappointed if your favorite web server is hardly mentioned.

Who’s this book for?

This book is for every GNU/Linux systems administrator. If your day-to-day work requires the administration of one or more GNU/Linux systems, I highly recommend this book. I have been administering GNU/Linux systems since 1994, and I learned a few things from this book. Most seasoned administrators will probably find the book a fun, nostalgic read, rather than a great learning tool. But, for budding administrators, or even mid-level administrators, this book is rich in detail, well-written, and an almost-endless source of information.

If you are a budding geek with a desire to learn all about GNU/Linux, I recommend “Linux Administration Handbook” with reservations. The focus of the book is definitely systems administration. However, there’s more than enough information for someone who merely wants to learn more about their GNU/Linux computer, and the writing style is conversational and fun to read.

Relevance to free software

Refreshingly, the authors focus exclusively on free software. When relevant, commercial products are mentioned, but no real space is devoted to their use. This is in keeping with the philosophy of the book, which focuses on the tools most likely to be available to all systems administrators.

Pros

This is the descendant and heir apparent of the venerable “Unix Administrators Handbook”. For those who remember the original, this latest edition maintains the high quality writing and in-depth coverage of systems administration in a GNU/Linux environment. The authors take great pains to present an unbiased, clear, and often droll overview of GNU/Linux systems administration.

I was often surprised by their very practical advice. For instance, while discussing Kerberos, they say, “In our opinion, most sites are better off without it”, and suggest a regimen of “good systems hygiene” and secure shell.

All-in-all, their down-to-earth suggestions and detailed coverage of the most salient administration tasks make this an excellent book.

Cons

While this book is extensive, it is not comprehensive. Although it provides an excellent overview, this book will not make you a Sendmail expert, or a network administration expert. The discussions of a particular subject will give a good foundation for further investigation, but they will not solve all your administration problems.

Also, the cover is ugly. It is redeemed by being absurd.

Title Linux Administration Handbook
Author Evi Nemeth, Garth Snyder, Trent R. Hein, et al
Publisher Prentice Hall
ISBN 0131480049
Year 2007
Pages 1040
CD included No
FS Oriented 9
Over all score 8

In short

License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.