How Linux Works—What Every Superuser Should Know by Brian Ward, ISBN 1-59327-035-6

Reviewed by: Mark Goldstein, March 2005
Published by: No Starch Press (distributed by O'Reilly & Associates at all major bookstores)
Requires: N/A
MSRP: US$37.95

The simple fact remains, after all the passionate headbanging, expensive commercial marketing and underground marketing aimed at establishing Linux on the consumer desktop, that Linux is still a serious work in progress, aspiring to prime time but not quite ready to take its place in the desktop limelight. So anybody who truly wants to gain a thorough understanding of the immense power of the Linux operating system had better be prepared to memorize some commands. No truly instructive and worthwhile book calling itself How Linux Works can possibly deal with the subject without fully and completely emphasizing and explaining the Linux command line. Don't let that scare you. The old purists raised on the DOS command line are nodding sagely right now, believing that one command line is much like another and remembering how powerful DOS was and is. But Linux is orders of magnitude beyond DOS. It follows that the more powerful and complex the application, the more likely it is to benefit from a thorough explanation. And that's why I'm reviewing this book.

If you're thinking of moving to Linux or if you've already moved to Linux and are experiencing some growing pains, the key to all things good and confidence building is the presence of a book which details all of the needs you might have. How Linux Works is organized to walk you through the initial introduction to Linux, identifying the key components, secondary components and all the tools used for manipulating and configuring the operating system. More important, with individual chapters that are component-specific, singularly crucial topics such as the command line, printing, file sharing, peripheral device configuration and compiling code—the five major problem areas for new (and not so new) Linux users—are dealt with in the context of the technical components to which they're related. In other words, you can go straight to the chapter on printing and find the information you need to tweak your configuration in order to make it work properly. Above all else, the command line receives its own, detailed chapter and a supporting appendix containing command classifications.

How Linux Works is not a Linux sales pitch. It contains no ripe prose written to assuage your fear of change, deriding Windows' limitations all the while persuading and beseeching you to install and use Linux. It's a straightforward reference work which will either preach to the converted or guide the confused. If you've already decided to start using Linux as your primary or secondary operating system, you'll find the information in this book invaluable. Whether you're downloading a Linux distribution and creating your own installation CDs or purchasing a retail distribution like Xandros Desktop, it's important to familiarize yourself with the practical concepts behind the operating system as well as the technical details needed to configure and control it. How Linux Works has been written to fill those needs as well and it succeeds admirably because of the way in which it's organized and the level of technical detail it offers. At 351 pages, including the table of contents, appendix and index, it is shorter than some other Linux reference books on the market, but author Brian Ward has done an efficient and readable job of including and presenting everything you need to know. I'd judge anything more detailed to be aimed strictly at programmers and engineers. This book is aimed primarily at the rest of us. Here's a sample chapter courtesy of No Starch Press (you need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the file).

Cons: The book is not cross-referenced as thoroughly as I like, which is good for some readers who don't like technical 'clutter', but not so good for the more technically inclined. The index is good, but not quite detailed enough for authoritative use when tracking down some common reference words (I couldn't find DNS anywhere in the index, at least not under 'D' and not with the networking sub-references under 'N', although DNS is certainly discussed in the book). While No Starch Press produces good quality print, well bound, well laid out, cleanly finished books, a reference text is something that has to be able to lay flat on a desk or table. It may be somewhat inelegant, but a ring bound or spiral bound volume makes sense in practical applications. The current binding method is professional indeed, but requires repeated excess force to ensure the book lays flat, entailing numerous rounds of back flexing, book spine stretching and creasing of pages. There has to be a better way.

Pros: The chapters on compiling software from source code, configuring and manipulating peripheral devices, printing, file sharing with Samba, and the command classification listings in Appendix A are the standouts. Information is provided for beginner and intermediate Linux users in a concise, easy to understand and straightforward manner. The ratio of configuration instructions to supporting technical detail is just right. The command line chapter and supporting appendix are excellent and will help hesitant users dive in with confidence. System administrators who are just getting familiar with Linux will also derive a surprising amount of fundamentally useful information from this book. Brian Ward's writing style is transparent and economical, making the book an easy read especially in the chapters which are technically challenging. Recommended.

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