Installing and Administering Linux

by Glen Otero

I jumped at the chance to review an installment of the In The Trenches series of books from Gearhead Press that focused on Linux. Gearhead only publishes works written by professional technical trainers, so I figured the new Linux series would be an exceptional training ground.

The first installment of the series, Installing and Administering Linux, puzzled me from the start. It was the first book written for Linux beginners I had seen in which the Linux installation occurs in the last chapter! My gut reaction was that the book was written backwards. I thought, "How is anyone going to learn Linux using this book when the installation chapter is last? Did the authors really think that newbies were going to learn Linux by reading a whole book about it before actually doing an install?" Regardless, I began reading the book, deeply curious about its approach. While reading Chapter 5, I remembered a Linux class I had taught in which I walked the class through a full Linux install on day one. Even with explicit written directions and standard equipment, it was chaos. More importantly, after the smoke had cleared and the students had become administrators of their own Linux systems, most of them had looks of "Now what?" on their faces. The students didn't know how to do the first thing with their new systems. I spent the rest of the course behind the power curve trying to demonstrate how powerful Linux was to a group of students that didn't know the basics of Linux operation. It was like finding yourself at Everest's base camp with permission for a peak assault, but the expedition members didn't have rope, ice axes or oxygen--only enthusiasm. I learned a very valuable lesson regarding teaching Linux. I subsequently reorganized the course to provide students with working Linux systems on day one. This way, we started our climb to base camp from sea-level and learned to navigate Linux terrain (file system) along the way, in addition to rope and ice axe skills (the command line, shell, vi editor, utilities, processes, etc.). I saved the trial-by-fire, final push to base camp (full install of Linux, including the X Windows System) for the final exam. The students were less intimidated at the start, learned quickly and had more fun with this approach. Upon completing the class, they were geared up to peak their own Linux Everest.

Remembering that teaching experience, the chapter order in this book suddenly made perfect sense. Installing and Administering Linux is the book I will use to teach my next class. But if you don't want to move to San Diego and enroll in my next beginners' Linux class, do the following: 1) get access to a working Linux system; 2) buy this book; 3) read the material, complete the exercises at the end of each chapter and take the quizzes. I guarantee that you will be a proficient user by the time you attempt your first Linux install.

Installing and Administering Linux makes a great reference as well as a helpful workbook for beginners. The material covered is the crux of how to use Linux. Pithy topics, including file-system architecture, utilities, processes, the vi editor, the command line, environment variables and shell basics, are clearly explained with the newbie in mind using constructive but not overly elaborate examples. I have yet to read a book that clearly explains the relationship between terminal-environment variables and shell-environment variables as well as this book. Further, the exercises and quizzes at the end of each chapter provide the reader with pertinent challenges to improve their skills and knowledge. Answers to the exercises and quizzes, as well as an excellent command summary, are included in the book's appendices.

Another reason I highly recommend this book is because it doesn't try to do too much. There are several Linux tomes out there that claim to be the alpha and omega of information and instruction. I find that many of these books lack focus and do a much better job describing some topics than others. As a result, I end up collecting several of these books, each of which describes a particular subject very well, in an attempt to build a library that covers the gamut of Linux information.

Installing and Administering Linux adheres to the well-defined mission of bringing new users quickly up to speed and states straight out when a topic, i.e., LILO, resides outside the book's scope. I like that--a lot.

Although last, the installation chapter is certainly not least, covering each step of the Linux indoctrination in sufficient detail. Included with the book is a CD-ROM containing Red Hat Linux 6.2 for users to cut their teeth on.

The moral of the story? You don't have to go through Linux's ritualistic rite of passage, I mean installation, as the first step towards learning Linux. In fact, and I'm speaking here from personal as well as professional experience, don't. Beg, borrow or steal access to a working Linux system and use Installing and Administering Linux to teach yourself. When you are finished, you will be well equipped to grab the installation bull by the horns. After a successful install, you can choose and climb your own Linux Everest.

Glen Otero has a PhD in Immunology and Microbiology and runs a consulting company called Linux Prophet in San Diego, California. He can be reached at Surfing, in the ocean that is, is his favorite pastime.

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