Running Linux in a New World
Title: Running Linux, 4th EditionAuthors: Matt Welsh, Matthias Kalle Dalheimer, Terry Dawson and Lar KaufmanPublisher: O'Reilly & AssociatesISBN: 0-596-00272-6Price: $44.95 US, $69.95 CAN
With O'Reilly having sold over 200,000 copies of its most popular Linux book, Running Linux, most of Linux Journal's readers probably either own or have access to an earlier edition. Nevertheless, there are some differences of note between the previous editions and the new, 4th edition of this Linux staple. These differences not only make replacing your old copy of Running Linux worthwhile, but they indicate some interesting developments in the Linux community.
A Matter of Language
The 4th edition has a subtle but important shift in attitude that is evident in its language. Whereas in earlier editions, Linux was referred to as “a free Unix clone” (3rd Ed., pg. 1), the 4th edition refers to Linux as “a free, open source operating system”. This simple change in word usage—seen throughout the book—suggests that the Linux community views Linux quite differently from a mere 18 months ago, when the 3rd edition was published. We have come to see Linux as separate and distinct; we no longer rely on the various manifestations of UNIX to define it. “People are not viewing Linux as just another Unix any longer; it's viewed as an operating system in its own right”, says one of the authors, Kalle Dalheimer. In essence, it has reached adulthood.
Linux is not in isolation and independent, however. Certainly, it has ceased to be dependent on the UNIX operating systems out of which it originally grew. Instead, as the new Running Linux's opening line suggests, it has become interdependent with the GNU Open Source community. Both complement each other while not strictly relying on each other. For instance, the open-source database MySQL thrives in the Linux world, but it competes quite well as a database for other operating systems. At the same time, a Linux web server is greatly enhanced when a MySQL system is deployed with it, but it could just as easily make use of some other database. However, Linux and MySQL help each other grow as a result of their interdependent relationship.
To this end, Running Linux no longer dedicates a section to the “Differences Between Linux and Other Operating Systems” (3rd Ed., pg. 31), wherein comparisons are made to Microsoft Windows and commercial UNIX systems. This is clearly a shift to a non-apologetic attitude regarding Linux. In fact, the authors have added to their list of reasons why people like Linux the previously unlikely reason of “It's sexy”. Linux has come a long way from its obscure role of the little hobbyist OS that thought it could.
Tried and True Style
As the descendant of Matt Welsh's classic book from the early 1990s, Linux Installation & Getting Started, the new edition of Running Linux possesses the familiar and casual style of writing of Welsh's first text. Although Welsh's role has diminished over the years with the introduction of three additional contributors to this project, they have retained the simplistic style that made Welsh's first book so popular and Linux thereby accessible.
The authors of Running Linux have not gone the way of many computer books these days, explaining how to configure Linux with graphical interfaces. These GUI configuration programs are slick and can be helpful, particularly for those first starting out with Linux. However, I think system administrators and would-be administrators need to know how to configure Linux machines from the command prompt. It gives one better control and a better understanding of the system. Too many Linux components are intertwined with one another to strictly rely on GUI configuration programs to take care of everything. “Sooner or later they will either be not powerful enough or simply break, and then you will be glad if you know how to do it the manual way”, says Dalheimer, who's located in Germany. Troubleshooting and solving system problems is far easier if one has taken the time over the years to learn system settings at their basic levels. Also, there's the matter of server accessibility. Many times, I've had to resolve server problems while I was out of town and had to use someone's MS Windows computer. With only secure shell terminal access on a machine without X, you'll wish you knew the commands and configuration files.
One complaint I do have about Running Linux is the amount of redundant comments. However, I don't know what the authors can do about it. When covering complicated topics, invariably there will be connections to other aspects of Linux. Rather than elaborate on related topics in each section, the authors and editors choose to use notations that refer the reader to the related chapters. This is fine; however, such references are sometimes made a few times in a brief section of text. This can be wearing if one reads the text as I did, from beginning to end. But in fairness to the authors, although the book builds from one chapter to the next, they do not seem to assume that most readers will read it sequentially. Dalheimer says, “You should be able to read through it from cover to cover, as well as keep it on your desk afterwards and look up things.” Therefore, these comments are necessary to keep the text down to a minimum length and so that the book may be used as a reference manual.
For those unfamiliar with Running Linux, the content is excellent for beginners and for those who have been at Linux for a while. All of the basics are explained quite well, including the installation process, the filesystem, LILO configuration, basic commands, software upgrades, rebuilding the kernel and making backups. The authors also provide information to help the new reader get started with text editors like Vi and Emacs, in addition to advice on installing and configuring the X Window System. As the new reader's Linux usage increases, Running Linux provides hints on beginning to program in popular open-source languages such as Perl and Java. Tips on networking, Apache web service and setting up a mail server also are provided.
In this new edition, the authors have added or increased information on devices like laptops, video cards, scanners and sound cards. They've reduced the information on services fading in popularity, like bulletin boards, but have added information on new items, such as ADSL, and have expanded their advice on network security. I was saddened to see the programming languages of Tcl and Tk lose ground in the 4th edition; in the 3rd they enjoyed a section of their own in the programming chapter, consisting of about a dozen pages. In the 4th edition they have been reduced to less than a page of comments. But such hard choices have to be made. “The book already has reached a 'critical mass'; if it [were] thicker, it would be more difficult to produce and hence have a considerably higher retail price”, says Dalheimer. In trade, the authors did add a section on LAMP (Linux with Apache, MySQL and PHP), though. Also, text on GNOME has been expanded and moved from an appendix to the chapter on the X environment. The section on KDE has been expanded, as well.
As expected, Running Linux continues to be the excellent Linux tutorial and reference manual it always has been. The authors and the editors at O'Reilly have ensured that it stays current, without foregoing what's important in running a Linux system. Running Linux really is one of the ultimate Linux manuals.
Russell J.T. Dyer is a Perl programmer, a MySQL developer and a web designer living and working on a consulting basis in New Orleans. He's been working with Linux for about six years now, but he still occasionally likes to refer to his old printed copy of Matt Welsh's book, Linux Installation & Getting Started, published by SSC, to get his bearing. He welcomes reader responses to his articles.