Book Review: Linux Network Toolkit
Author: Paul G. Sery
Price: $49.99 US, $69.99 CAN
Reviewer: Russell J. T. Dyer
Linux Network Toolkit by Paul Sery is a tutorial-style computer book that teaches the dedicated reader how to set up and maintain an integrated network composed of a Linux server and MS Windows 95 clients. At the core is, of course, Samba. This very thick and well-written book covers just about every aspect of Linux networking, not just integrating with Windows 95. Various qualities of the book make it superior to other Linux books of this type, but it still adheres to a few Linux book conventions that are bothersome. The price precludes it from being a casual purchase, but for the right Linux users, it is a worthwhile read and investment.
The most impressive aspect of this book is its structure. Mr. Sery delivers a feeling of accomplishment in the first chapter and builds with each successive chapter. Chapter 1 covers installing Linux on a computer, connecting it to a Windows 95 network and configuring the Samba basics. This is no small challenge and his instructions are fairly straightforward if the reader is computer savvy and willing to follow directions. If it doesn't work, the second chapter on troubleshooting should help. With success in hand, Sery goes back and explains Linux and its history and gives recommendations on learning more (i.e., through various web sites, books, etc.). In the following part, Sery returns to the Samba and Linux configurations in much greater detail. He also includes a chapter on putting a Linux server on the Internet, while dedicating another chapter to sharing his skills as a network administrator. He ends the book by returning to the beginning and guiding the reader through the steps of setting up a complex Windows 95 network with a Linux computer as its server. With this organizational structure, Sery provides a very effective tutorial on Linux networking.
At a price of about $50 US, however, Linux Network Toolkit is a little costly for the average Linux user. On the other hand, the average Linux user doesn't have a network at home and probably doesn't get to use Linux at work. Those who do use Linux at work might find it helps them advance in their job and pay, perhaps convincing the boss to switch the office server over to Linux. In my case, I was allowed to convert my computer at work to Linux as long as I could interact with the network and not be a burden to others. I met those requirements primarily with Samba and WordPerfect for Linux. So, a book that helps the reader integrate Linux into his office network is worth the cost.
Linux Network Toolkit is nearly 600 pages long and comes with Red Hat 5.0 on CD. Some of the bulk seems unnecessary: about 80 pages of appendices, 20 pages of Linux and related history and a scattering of directory listings, standard scripts and screen shots. The appendices cover vi commands, the GNU General Public License, copyrights, a list of web sites and a description of the contents of the CD. I could have done without these and wish they had been written on the CD.
I find Linux's history to be very interesting, but I don't understand why almost every Linux book insists on including it. Sery's accounts of the origins of Linux, UNIX and Samba are well-written, so although I fault him for including histories, I prefer his histories to those in other Linux books I own.
As for directory listings and scripts, some take up to two pages. Granted, they can be necessary, but many times it is sufficient to tell the reader to type the commands and see what happens.
Basically, the publisher, IDG Books Worldwide could have eliminated about 150 pages and the CD and lowered the price. After all, how many copies of Linux do I need? A lower price would have been more palatable and allowed for more sales to make up for the per-book profit.
Sery's approach suggests that he assumes the reader has a fairly good knowledge of computers, but not necessarily much on Linux, whereas the back cover suggests a reader level of intermediate to advanced. This is probably more reasonable. I find the book to be more appropriate for the Linux user who has long since graduated from the “new user” category and is ready to leave the “beginner” mode. It is also useful for the more advanced user who has a few gaps in his knowledge or has never attempted a Linux network. For these users, the book may work just fine as a tutorial or a reference. Along those lines, at the end of each chapter, Sery provides well-thought-out chapter summaries. Most books provide these, of course, but they are often poorly done. Sery's summaries are very effective in reinforcing what the reader just read and later serving as a reference source.
The style of writing is in a somewhat standard form for computer books, but more accessible. Sery occasionally writes in a conversational tone. For instance, at times he uses words like “stuff” and “great”. He doesn't hide from the reader, either. He uses the pronouns “I” and “me” quite often. He also steps out of character occasionally and lets his natural enthusiasm for computers and Linux show through. He tells the reader how he found certain aspects of Linux difficult and confusing when he was first learning it; he then attempts to resolve these problems for the reader. As part of this, Sery sometimes explains in simple terms, step-by-step, the processes going on behind Linux commands. This, to me, is an excellent way to write a useful and approachable Linux book. It also makes it more enjoyable to read. After all, it is about Linux, not stuffy old UNIX. It belongs to us, not rigid institutional companies looking to make a quick billion.
Another accessible feature of Sery's book is the fact that he compares commands in Linux to their counterparts in DOS and Windows. Most Linux books don't do much of this, I believe, because the writers are either coming from a UNIX background or they are anti-Microsoft. If a reader comes from a UNIX background, he probably won't need most of the books written about Linux. Ignoring all that most readers have learned from the Microsoft environment is counter-productive. When explaining the ls command, does it really hurt to say that it's like dir in MS-DOS? Where appropriate, Sery provides these useful links to what the reader likely already knows. In so doing, he helps the reader learn faster and appreciate the greater flexibility and power of Linux.
One other warning: this is definitely a pro-Red Hat book. I mention this only because before I was a Red Hat user, I hated to spend $30 or more on a Linux book, then find out one-fourth of it was a Red Hat manual. Linux Network Toolkit comes with Red Hat 5.0 and contains many comments on how Red Hat is configured. If I were a Debian user, I would probably say it contains an excessive amount of comments on Red Hat. One plus for users of other distributions that use rpm is that it provides information on several rpm commands the Red Hat manual.
In conclusion, I would recommend Linux Network Toolkit to intermediate Linux users who are constructing and maintaining an integrated Linux network. The price is a little high, but it can be justified for certain readers and needs. The book is partial to Red Hat and has the usual Linux book fillers. All in all, though, it is a well-written, approachable tutorial on Linux networking.