Book Review: Red Hat Linux 6 in Small Business
Authors: Paul G. Sery and Eric Harper
Publisher: M&T Books (An IDG imprint)
Price: $29.99 US
Reviewer: Paul Dunne
Well, out of all the books I've reviewed for Linux Journal, this is the one with which I was least satisfied. As a writer myself, I take no great pleasure in having to criticize another's work. But in this instance, I must.
This is not a fat book—and there's nothing wrong with that, too many computer books are padded out—but, unfortunately in this instance, the lean has been cut away with the fat. Let me step through the chapters and explain what's wrong.
After the first chapter, on installing Red Hat, we move to chapter 2, “Navigating Linux”, a straightforward although somewhat brief introduction to the shell. It is brief at least partly because, to quote the authors, “this book relies heavily on the use of the graphical X interface”. This is an unwise dependence. The command line is not an optional alternative. There is no unified graphical interface to administering a Linux box; it's command line or bust. Sugaring the pill in the way our authors attempt to do simply does not work.
Chapter 3, on editing files, is a decent if short introduction to joe and vi. It would be greatly improved by the inclusion of a command summary for each editor considered.
Chapter 4, configuring the X Window System, is in my view out of place in the book; but even so, it is inadequate. It is far too short, and does little more than tell the user to run Xconfigurator.
Chapter 5, on getting help, is a concise guide to sources for further Linux information.
Now comes Part II, Managing Your Linux Network, and here our troubles really begin.
We start with the sixth chapter, on system administration. This is wholly inadequate. It attempts to paper over the complexity of this job by introducing the user to some graphical tools bundled with Red Hat. As I've said above, this approach is fundamentally misguided.
Chapter 7, Managing Your Network, is better, but again it suffers from the fault of simply directing the reader elsewhere when it comes to the hard stuff. For example, “The experienced network administrator can modify any of these configuration files by hand ... Just be aware that the scripts and files are often interrelated with each other and modifying one can change another's behaviour. You can view the man pages of these to gain more understanding of the services”. Well, quite! An explanation of the complex structure of Red Hat's System V style rc file layout would have been particularly helpful here. Simply referring the reader to the man pages is a cop-out.
Following is a chapter on Samba and one on printers. In the latter, there is no explanation of /etc/printcap, the basic printer config file on every Linux system. We are shown some GUI tool to make changes. We leave the chapter much as we entered it, with no understanding of how printers work under Linux, nor how to configure them.
Chapter 10, backups, is basically an explanation of the Arkeia backup software bundled on the companion CD-ROM. I found it a good guide to using the software.
Part III, Connecting Your Network to the Internet, starts with Chapter 11 on connecting to the Internet. Off we go again—“Using the network configuration”—but no explanation of what this program is actually doing. “Configuring a DNS server from scratch can be a very complex task”, a task which the authors duck by pointing the reader to a few example files on the CD. It would have been better to leave the topic out altogether than deal with it so half-heartedly.
As a side note, dip has been obsolete for years. Why no mention of pppd? To their credit, the authors do give an introduction to using diald.
Chapter 12 covers creating a simple firewall. Although short, this chapter is good. It doesn't avoid explaining the command necessary to set up a Linux packet-filtering firewall, but again, there is no explanation of why the firewall rules listed are used.
Chapter 13 is on configuring a Linux e-mail server. This is very bad—one and a half pages on Sendmail! They take up more space in explaining how to use the Netscape e-mail client. Simply put, this chapter will not tell you how to configure a Linux e-mail server.
Part IV takes a complete change of focus, looking at “office productivity” tools, then back to networking by installing Apache. The latter chapter is again ridiculously short, and plainly omits any detailed explanation of exactly how Apache is configured. As for the former, well, given the size of the book, they can either do a good job of explaining how to use Linux as the main server for a small business, or they can look at it as a desktop platform. There isn't space for both. Perhaps this partially explains why the book ends up doing neither.
We finish with a curious document, the IDG Books Worldwide Inc. End-User License Agreement, which contains the following gems:
1. License Grant. IDGB grants to you (either an individual or entity) a non-exclusive license to use one copy of the enclosed software program(s) (collectively, “the Software”) solely for your own personal or business purposes on a single computer (with a standard computer or a workstation component of a multiuser network). [...]
Whoa! You what?
2. Ownership. IDGB is the owner of all right, title and interest, including copyright, in and to the compilation of the Software [...]
Seems reasonable. Copyright on the compilation, not on the software itself.
3. Restrictions on Use and Transfer.
(a) You may only (i) make one copy of the Software for backup or archival purposes [...] You may not (i) rent or lease the Software, (ii) copy or reproduce the Software through a LAN or other network system [...], or (iii) modify, adapt, or create derivative works based on the Software.
and a lot more of the same. This is just plain wrong, it seems to me.
4. Restrictions on Use of Individual Programs. [...] None of the material on this Software Media or listed in this book may ever be redistributed, in original or modified form, for commercial purposes.
The book also includes the GPL (right after this license) and a note to the effect that the Red Hat distribution may be used “in accordance with the GNU General Public License” In which case, surely the IDG license does not apply to the Software? So why are they bothering to print it in the book?
Insofar as this license agreement purports to apply to the Linux components of the CDs bundled with the book, then it is plain wrong. For instance, we read, “You may only (i) make one copy of the Software for backup or archival purposes”. The only copyright IDGB has here is to the bundle itself; that is to say, to the collection. I can make as many copies of Red Hat as I like, and IDGB can do nothing to stop me. This license is out of place in a book about open source.
In conclusion, this book is unsatisfactory. It is too sketchy, tries to cover too much ground, and is short on detailed, hands-on demonstrations of what to do. There is no clear focus and, as a result, the book fails to be either a detailed technical resource for system administrators or a decent introduction to Linux as a server OS for the less experienced.
It is true that some parts are better than others. The firewall chapter, for instance, is a decent (albeit brief) introduction to this important subject. But, in contrast (and this is unhappily the more common case), the chapter entitled “Configuring a Linux E-mail Server” simply doesn't deliver what it promises.
At the very least, the book needs to be supplemented with on-line resources. In that case, why buy the book? Of course, given the speed with which Linux changes and the inevitable lag in publication times, any book will need supplementing by on-line resources to a degree. Here, I'm afraid, the book is so heavily dependent on them as to render it superfluous.