Getting Help With Linux
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
Regional user groups
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.
On-line is where all the action is, for sure! Like most free software, Linux was developed in its entirety by a virtual community on the Internet, and the Internet is where you'll always find the latest and greatest in Linux developments. You're missing out on a lot if you're not connected to the Internet. The ISP Hookup HOWTO gives all the details.
If you want, you can download Linux right off the Net and onto your computer. I've done this myself, and it's still my preferred method of installation on systems that don't have a CD-ROM drive. But be warned: this could take quite some time with a regular modem connection.
The general path to take when downloading Linux from the Net is first to download a set of installation disks—typically 5-10 diskettes—from which you install a bare-bones Linux system on your computer. Then use your existing Internet connection (a modem and an ISP dial-up account, for instance) to reconnect and download the specific applications and packages that you need. Instructions on how to do this are at both the Red Hat and Debian web sites.
I also like to frequent the 2GB+ Linux software repository at Sunsite, a machine hosted by the University of North Carolina. (There are mirrors of it worldwide.) They also host an excellent hands-on tutorial for total newbies who want to learn how to use Linux.
Not only is the Net where all the developments are taking place, but this is also where some of the best help and documentation can be found. If you want to learn how to do something with Linux, or have a question about some aspect of your Linux system, here is the way to go about finding an answer on the Net (see Resources for addresses):
Check the HOWTOs. The Linux HOWTOs are part of the Linux Documentation Project and a useful collection of up-to-the-minute tutorials on how to do various things with your system.
Look it up at the LDP. The Linux Documentation Project is an intense collection of free documentation on Linux, including the HOWTOs and several full-fledged Linux books (some of which are available from O'Reilly and others).
Search netnews. Usenet, or “netnews”, is a huge, ongoing discussion base on the Net, and the Linux newsgroups are among Usenet's busiest. Searching it with tools such as DejaNews and AltaVista and entering “Linux” and key terms that relate to your search will often yield positive results.
Wade through Linux links. The Linux Resources Page is hosted by the pro-Linux consultants at SSC (publisher of Linux Journal), and contains links to just about every Linux resource on the Net. Worth searching here are the archives to Linux Gazette, Linux Journal's digital sister publication.
Ask on IRC. The #linux and #linuxhelp channels on IRC can provide you with instant help from a live person. Used sparingly, this can be an excellent resource for quickly finding out just what you need to know.
Post on netnews. If you still haven't found your answer, open up your news-reader software and post your question to the appropriate Linux newsgroup on Usenet. You'll be answered by a live human (probably several) who will help you for free. There's only one catch: once you too become a Linux guru, return the favor and spend a little time on Usenet helping out a newbie with a problem for which you know the solution.
Regional Linux User Groups have been popularized by the folks at SSC and have really taken off in the past six months. Called GLUE—Groups of Linux Users Everywhere—the idea of regional LUGs has spread to the point that there is now a LUG in almost every major city, and in many out-of-the-way places, too.
Talking to the folks at a LUG can be extremely helpful if you're a total newbie and need help with Linux. It's also a great way to see some of the amazing things that others are doing with Linux in your area—I always come out of our LUG meetings here in Cleveland having learned something new. And LUGs hosting Linux “Install Fests” are not uncommon; this is a meeting where you can bring in your computer, and LUG volunteers will install Linux on it for you for free (or a small donation).
You may represent a company or other entity with specialized needs or requiring a great deal of support; if so, there is a whole world of Linux consultants out there. Start with the Linux-Consultants HOWTO (see Resources), but note that a number of traditional computer consulting firms and even ISPs now provide Linux consulting services.
Another rising trend is companies who provide preconfigured Linux systems. If you don't yet have the hardware, this can be a good way to purchase a running Linux system and not have to bother with installation.
These sources will almost certainly be able to fulfill any need you have in starting out with, or getting help on, a particular aspect of Linux. Yes, mastering Linux does require some effort, but the best things in life always do. That does not mean running Linux is any more difficult than non-free software or requires you to be a programmer—in fact, anyone can learn Linux! It's just that you do have to put some thought into the process, as you did when you learned to drive a car or to speak a foreign language. Those were worthwhile tasks, and you will find that the time spent learning Linux is, too.
Michael Stutz is a writer who frequently contributes to Wired News, on the Web at http://www.wired.com/. He is currently writing A GNU/Linux Cookbook for the Free Software Foundation, which describes how non-programmers can use GNU/Linux systems for their work. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.