Getting Help With Linux

So you've heard a lot about the power of Linux and you're eager to try it out for yourself. But where do you start?

Whether you're a long-time Linux user or a total newbie who needs to obtain Linux software for that first install, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the vast amount of Linux information available. Finding the best approach to getting help on a particular problem is no simple task. Since Linux is an independent happening—no company or sole entity owns what is essentially a continually-growing resource, free for all humanity—this tangle of information can be confusing. Here's an attempt to outline the most efficient means of getting help with Linux.

First, understand that no matter what your skill level, you're not alone. Help is always available—in fact, one of the strengths of the free software movement is that you don't have to wait on a tech support line, or rely on any one business (and local business hours) for help—individuals and companies all over the world can provide all levels of support.

There are four basic routes to getting help with Linux; the one you choose for any particular problem will depend on what that problem is. These routes almost always overlap, and eventually you'll probably have dealt with all four in varying degrees. They are:

  • Books and Media

  • The Internet

  • Regional user groups

  • Consultants

Books and Media

If you already have a computer you want to run Linux on, and you're ready to begin fiddling with the hardware settings, then this is a good place to begin. Books are also the best desktop reference to keep handy when you need quick information—and you can take them along when you're away from a computer. For beginners, a good book is quite a deal because it often comes bundled with a Linux CD-ROM.

Note, however, that like any other popular subject, the mileage of any given Linux book will vary—they range from excellent tomes of which a shopworn copy is an absolute must for every Linux guru's lair, to those that contain inaccuracies and typos. This same warning also applies to the many Linux CD-ROMs available.

When you are in the market for a CD-ROM, make sure that you are getting a recent distribution; these can be obtained from many vendors, such as Cheap Bytes, Prime Time Freeware and Linux System Labs, often for as little as a few dollars. Be wary of older CD-ROMs; using older versions of the software may be more trouble than they're worth—the active and continual development of the Linux system means that the software on old CD-ROMs will be significantly different from the bleeding edge Linux that's out in the field. Since Linux is constantly getting easier to install and use and hardware compatibilities are always being added, you will save yourself some grief by installing from the newest version you can get.

On that note, be careful of the publication date on any books you might be considering. As a rule, any technical book or CD is outdated to some degree upon publication. It is generally safe to assume that any Linux book or CD over a year and a half old is hopelessly out of date. Furthermore, if you find a Linux book or CD more than three years old, consider it an object of Internet and computing antiquity—maybe keep it for historical purposes or as a conversation piece.

When it comes to applied computing—and specifically the Internet/UNIX world—the books published by O'Reilly & Associates seem to be without peer. Their TCP/IP Network Administration by Craig Hunt is a must-have for learning the basics of Internet networking, and they've done the same with their selection of fine books on Linux. The latest edition of their book Running Linux, by Matt Welsh and Lar Kaufman, is perhaps the finest all-around general-purpose Linux overview currently available.

The Free Software Foundation also publishes many books documenting free software, including the GNU Emacs editor; unlike most other publishers of technical manuals, the FSF's books are as free as the software they write about, and buying these books is a good way to show support for this organization.

As far as CD-ROMs are concerned, you will probably want to stick with those containing either (or both) the Debian or Red Hat distributions of Linux. A distribution is necessary; it is simply a collection of the various programs and applications which make up a running, usable Linux system, along with some way of upgrading or maintaining the system. They all contain the same Linux programs and software, but each one collects them differently and has a different means for installation and upgrades.

Slackware was an early distribution that was excellent for its time, but seems to have taken a back seat recently as far as popularity goes. There are many other less popular distributions, each with its own strengths and weaknesses—but for a beginner, sticking with one of the top two (Debian and Red Hat) is probably your best bet. As was pointed out on IRC recently, distributions are to Linux like flavors are to ice cream—there's much more than just vanilla and chocolate out there, and which one you eventually settle down with will depend on your own taste.

Debian GNU/Linux is a free distribution that, like Linux itself, is assembled by a loose collection of enthusiasts. Red Hat is a commercial product (also assembled by Linux enthusiasts) that most consider to be much easier to install and maintain.