Book Review: Linux for the Rest of Us

by Sean Tierney

Title: Linux for the Rest of UsAuthor: Mark RaisPublisher: Eagle Nest PressISBN: 0-9726-790-0-6

A great many Linux books are available, covering the gamut from installation and advanced configuration through networks, programming and many other special uses. The majority of these books are lengthy, containing volumes of information. Those new to Linux often find them intimidating. So what should the Linux neophyte do? Turn to Linux for the Rest of Us, of course. Mark Rais' new book promises to be readable and to offer the information and first-hand knowledge the beginner needs.

The meat of the book is divided into five sections, for a total of 22 chapters and an appendix. Although the book is short and to the point, 108 pages, it does not skimp on information. Much of it reads like a technical or instruction manual, but with some real-world experience mixed in.

The first section, Raw Basics, takes the reader from starting his or her first Linux installation, through manipulating files and an introduction to the command prompt and many of the basic commands. The chapter on installation has a distinct Red Hat orientation. It covers types of installs, partitioning, network configuration and boot loaders. This section also touches on dual booting, a topic likely to interest users coming from other operating systems. The author wisely encourages the reader to seek additional information on dual booting before attempting it. Despite targeting a particular Linux distribution, the included Dos and Don'ts could apply to any of them. Furthermore, it offers advice and clarification on many of the installation steps that a beginner is unlikely to find anywhere else.

In the next section, Real World Use, the author discusses text editors, the X Window System and accessing disk drivers. There is also information about dual booting and running Windows programs under WINE. The introduction to vi is brief but good. The coverage of disk access, mounting drives and partitions provides essential information and guidance. The sections on dual booting and using WINE, however, left me a little concerned. Anyone as new to Linux as the book's target reader may risk file corruption and data loss at worst and frustration at best. The chapter on accessing Windows files may be misleading to anyone already familiar with Linux, because it does not cover Samba. It is simply further discussion on mounting disk partitions, specifically VFAT.

The section on the X Windows System, though, is one of the shining stars of the book. After all, users coming from another operating system simply might turn back if they find they're forced to use the command prompt because they do not have a working graphical user interface. This chapter covers tips, traps and recommendations for installing and using X.

I found the third section, Server Setup, to be a basic step towards getting a Linux server up and running. Even though the chapter title "Configuring a Linux Server" is directed towards setting up a server for the Web, FTP, telnet and databases (MySQL), a very useful discussion of services and processes also is presented. The rc directory tree, inetd and xinetd are introduced. The reader is shown how to manually start and stop services, as well as how to configure them with chkconfig. Although short, the next two chapters in this section are a walk through of setting up a web server and using CGI. The author also soundly advises the reader to test and read the error logs.

Stories from the Field is an eclectic compilation of humor and Linux advocacy. In the chapter named "Linux Makes You Cool", Mr. Rais briefly discusses how his team at AOL used Linux for rapid prototyping and to engineer solutions. In the next two chapters, "Granny" talks about how she uses Linux. StarOffice and a few other applications are mentioned. This is an important feature, and the topic could have been expanded into a whole section, describing ways of accomplishing familiar tasks on Linux.

The appendix contains answers to a hodge-podge of frequently asked questions. Much of this information could have appeared in other sections of the book. Although the question-and-answer portion is useful, it should have been expanded to include topics not previously covered.

It's a good book, but what's missing? Because this book is geared towards those truly new to Linux, I feel the author should have included a section on documentation and getting further help. Ideally, he would have mentioned the relevant Howtos for each topic and included a short chapter discussing some of the many resources available on the web. At the very least, there could have been a paragraph in the appendix suggesting where the reader might go for more help. Also missing was a discussion of security.

In spite of a few concerns and the omissions mentioned above, this would be an excellent first book for anyone unfamiliar with Linux. The price, relaxed writing style and unintimidating size make for an easy and cost effective beginning, or early addition, to your Linux library. It also is worth mentioning that the author and publisher are donating all proceeds from the book to benefit the poor (after taxes and printing costs).

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