Absolute BSD: the Ultimate Guide to FreeBSD

A well-written reference that explains many of the "big" concepts--but not quite a one-stop shop for beginners.

Title: Absolute BSD: The Ultimate Guide to FreeBSDAuthor: Michael LucasPublisher: No Starch PressISBN: 1-886411-74-3Price: $39.95 USD

It is no secret FreeBSD is coming into its own in the new generation of UNIX. Of course, those of us who have been around for a while certainly don't think of BSD as new. As for FreeBSD, well, it's been around formally for nearly ten years--to say nothing of BSD itself, which has been around for twenty five years.

So, why is everything old new again? It seems it's always the same circle of realizing what a great idea that thing that actually worked was. And so, we come back--full circle--to an operating system that has remained virtually bullet-proof for decades.

In the form of FreeBSD, we have all of the functionality, freedom and stability that the ideal operating system should offer. Features from tried and true networking applications to development and Kerberos services are packaged with FreeBSD 4.6. What more could you ask for? Well, to start with, perhaps an adequate reference guide to learn and administer such a giant. Enter Michael Lucas, author of Absolute BSD. His text promises to be The Ultimate Guide to FreeBSD.

Were one to evaluate the merit of Lucas's text based on its scope alone, one would be hard-pressed to provide sufficient praise. His 500-plus page text covers installation, help resources, backup and recovery, kernel configuration, networking, upgrading, security, the filesystem structure and hierarchy, system troubleshooting and system recovery. With such a breadth of information at our disposal, we should be empowered to perform spectacular feats with FreeBSD, right? Well, maybe.

Lucas introduces his book with the following words: "This book is a one-stop shop for new UNIX administrators who want to build, configure, and manage dedicated FreeBSD servers." Although this may seem to be an incredibly bold claim, when we refer back to the scope of the text, it may not be too far-fetched.

Lucas begins the main body of the text with an overview of the installation process. Upon explaining Sysinstall, however, he writes, "I won't present a step-by-step walkthrough of the interface (that shouldn't be necessary)... ". Perhaps it is unfair of me to suggest this, but Lucas just promised a one-stop aid to the new administrator. Vaguely recalling my first encounter with Sysinstall, it would have been helpful to have had a step-by-step walkthrough. Having had fairly extensive experience installing sundry operating systems, the experience was tolerable, but it would not have been so had I been a UNIX novice. Thus, the tone was set for Lucas's guide.

The text is very conceptual in nature; that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, for many readers, it can be quite a good thing. Descriptions of larger concepts are frequently all that are needed to shed light upon somewhat tenebrous subjects. For instance, Lucas provides a good conceptual structure for such subjects as backup and recovery. His illumination of tape devices and related commands is a finely crafted example of providing the reader with a sense of ideational fulfillment. However, he does little to explain fairly consequential subjects, such as cataloging and indexing backup sets. His focus on the greater picture is quite laudable; however, the somewhat cursory nature of the explications may prove disconcerting to the UNIX neophyte.

Moreover, Lucas brilliantly delves into software management and advanced software management. He offers readers some excellent pointers on automating procedures--including some creditable advice on scripting. He deftly describes the use of FreeBSD's package commands. Yet, somehow, Lucas fails to emphasize the use of /stand/sysinstall as a means to install needed software packages. To the new FreeBSD administrator, this tool may prove invaluable.

Examples such as those listed in this review are common. While it is of little consequence to the experienced BSD administrator that Michael Lucas offers an enormous amount of material with inconsistent, step-by-step detail, it may be quite unfortunate for the new user/administrator.

I greatly enjoyed the text. It is engaging, robust, insightful and pleasingly sequential. It has enough substance to stock a small library of texts on the subject of FreeBSD. However, it is hard to get past what the book promises versus what it delivers to the new administrator.



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Re: Absolute BSD: the Ultimate Guide to FreeBSD

Anonymous's picture

Carl is very accurate with his assessment of the text. I found his review refreshing, well-written, and insightful.


Anonymous's picture


No serious FreeBSD user uses /stand/sysinstall for *anything*, much less for package installation!

The port's tree is *so* much more superior, and is as easy as you can get.

And as for the installation, I personally think that FreeBSD's installer sucks(OpenBSD's one is *much* better), but anyone with a IQ > 75 shouldn't need a step-by-step, it's already quite well self documented and you don't need to do much more than follow the configuration screens one after the other.

Nice to see more *BSD books around, now if someone could write a good in depth NetBSD hacking book following the old tradition of God Stevens(RIP)... *sigh*


Re: /stand/sysinstall

Anonymous's picture

Uhm, the emphasis here was on NEW USER/ADMINISTRATOR, just in case you found the article too difficult to actually read.

Re: /stand/sysinstall

Anonymous's picture

Agreed sysinstall sucks, but it is better than nothing. My IQ is greater than 75 (I think), I have used FreeBSD for several years and I still use sysinstall. An absolute newbie to FreeBSD would be absolutely lost without that minimal help.

Re: /stand/sysinstall

Anonymous's picture

I think you're illustrating the point made by the previous post. People who already know FreeBSD mostly want people to write documentation that they would consider "worthy" even though they themselves will probably never buy the book. The market for the book is not people like you, so /stand/sysinstall (as far below you as it may seem) is probably much more easy to swallow than showing a new user how to build software applications. I don't care how easy ports are. They're alien as hell to people who are not used to using Unix or building applications. Ports will scare more new users than it'll impress.

I use FreeBSD, by the way. I think *BSD's ports system (started by NetBSD, I believe) is the best package management system of any Unix, bar none. I'll never sell it to newbies, though.

Re: Absolute BSD: the Ultimate Guide to FreeBSD

Anonymous's picture

The plague that is todays technical documentation will continue as long as technical folks continue to write it. I am convinced that there is no such thing as a computer geek that can write documentation for folks that aren't (to some extent) geeks themselves. I can say that because I co-authored a techie Linux book myself and -- although I tried to write my parts of the book to be understandable to new users -- I failed to deliver something Mom could use to learn about Linux. I'll give myself a slap for that one...

Want an understandable techie book for non-techies or new sysadmins? Simple. Have a geek sit down with an author who has little technical savvy but a fair amount of experience *using* Windows (note how I said "using" and not "tweaking". Sorry folks, but that's your primary audience). Have the techie walk the author through the topics the various chapters are supposed to cover, then let the author -- NOT the techie -- write the book. The change in language alone will bring the book light years closer to being acceptable by the target markets.

I'm sure this FreeBSD book has good info in it as I am sure Mr. Lucas knows his subject well. I'm also sure that half of the stuff that's not in this book should be in it, and half of the stuff that's in it should have been cut. That describes most of the Linux and *BSD books I've encountered. Yes, mine too. Hopefully this situation will improve soon.