Open Source for Windows Administrators by Christian Gross, ISBN 1-58452-347-5

Reviewed by: Robert Boardman, October 2005
Published by: Charles River Media
Requires: N/A
MSRP: US$49.95 C$64.95

I had some troubles reviewing this book because I felt as if I were stuck between the two ends of a continuum, not being able to choose either one. In ten detailed chapters (the book is 675 pages long) the author focuses on a variety of open source tools that can be used to simplify various Windows administration tasks. The author starts with writing scripts to automate tasks and moves through security, remote administration, authentication, data storage, web and e-mail servers, and productivity suites. This is quite an extensive collection of tasks.

Through both descriptions and planned exercises author Christian Gross works from the simple to the complex in each chapter. He takes time to talk factually and without rancor about Windows' capabilities—what it can and cannot do. Many of the settings in Windows are discussed and he make suggestions about optimizing the operating system before adding any open source application. For example, the chapter about encryption includes two pages of security settings that should be examined using the Microsoft Management Console. While this is not a comprehensive list, it is more than adequate for most users.

Gross discusses the strengths and weaknesses of each open source application he recommends. Many of the packages discussed in the book are available on the accompanying DVD. Whether on the DVD or not, Gross provides more than enough detail to enable users to download the most recent version of any of the packages and install them quickly and safely on any computer currently running a Windows operating system (Windows 98, 2000, XP, Server 2003). Most applications have both an “Impatient installation and deployment” as well as a “regular” way. The impatient method is meant to get the application up and running as quickly as possible and with as little intervention from the user as possible. This might be the recommended method if installing an application on several computers in sequence, in a business network for example. The author also discusses deployment strategies for each open source package or project as he calls them.

Some of these projects have been compiled to run in Windows. For example, installation files for the MySQL database and the Apache web server come in different versions for different operating systems. One project, Samba, runs only in a Linux or Unix-clone operating system. Others, like the Bash scripting shell, run in a Linux-like window loaded on top of MS Windows. In many cases Gross uses this Linux-in-Windows environment for various routine tasks. For example, he writes a script using Bash to which can be used to download and install any Windows Updates on computers on a network.

This is the source of the opposing pulls I felt as I read the book. On one hand Gross does discuss some of the important open source products that are available for Windows. The more people know about the strengths and weaknesses of projects like MySQL, OpenOffice and Apache the easier it is for them to make informed choices about software. On the other hand, as a former network and IT Department manager I do not think the potential benefits of a Linux compatible layer on top of Windows are sufficient to reconfigure a network for its use. However, if I want to use the tools Gross develops in many places in the book, on all the Windows computers in my network, then they all need to have Cygwin (the Linux-compatible layer) installed and running as a service If I want to take advantage of the administrative tools, I need to give my machine a Linux-clone interface and use it as if I were using a Linux operating system.

There are some errors in the book which I think should have been corrected during editing. For example one part of the Apache set up says to configure Apache to “Listen” and in the next paragraph it says this will make Apache “listen on the IP address and port 80.” There seems to be an error like this in every chapter.

There are many fine projects discussed in the book. Many of them do not required Cygwin and are also available either on the DVD or from the Internet. But almost every chapter includes some extra tool or script or tweak that can only be done (apparently) in the Bash shell, which means running Cygwin. I see this as a drawback, since the continued use of Cygwin suggests the author would prefer computer administrators use Linux/Unix rather than Windows. However, if we have to use Windows, then we can make better use of our computers by converting Windows into a Linux-like clone at least part of the time.

The tools work, and the material presented in the book is clear. The book is well worth reading and well worth using. However the constant use of Cygwin may deter many from investigating open source packages for Windows administration. Despite my misgivings about the use of Cygwin, overall this is a valuable contribution to the open source community and to Windows administrators.

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