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A Practical Guide to Linux

Todd Sundsted

Issue #49, May 1998

This book is written for the “next” generation of Linux users—programmers, web designers and technically oriented people who are looking for an alternative to Microsoft's operating system and products—rather than the “hacker” generation (who brought Linux to this point).

  • Author: Mark Sobell

  • Publisher: Addison Wesley Longman

  • E-mail: info@awl.com

  • URL: http://www.awl.com/

  • Price: $38 US

  • ISBN: 0-201-89549-8

  • Reviewer: Todd Sundsted

Mark Sobell's A Practical Guide to Linux is one of a growing number of books on the Linux operating system. It combines about equal parts topical guide and command reference. It is written for the “next” generation of Linux users—programmers, web designers and technically oriented people who are looking for an alternative to Microsoft's operating system and products—rather than the “hacker” generation (who brought Linux to this point).

The Linux universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate. Consequently, books of this type are faced with the challenge of being simultaneously comprehensive, relevant and up to date. To this book we must add a fourth challenge—as the title suggests, the material in the book must be practical. Of the three (or four), being comprehensive is perhaps the easiest to achieve.

Let's look briefly at what Mark Sobell offers us. Part I is organized into chapters, each covering a separate topic.

After a brief introduction to Linux and its features in chapter one, Mark immediately gets down to the business of using Linux in chapter two. In it, he teaches the reader how to log in, edit files, access the on-line manual pages and use the command line. It is pretty basic stuff that is necessary for the complete beginner.

In chapter three, Mark teaches the reader how to use the most common command-line utilities—tools like cp, mv and grep. Chapter three ends with a useful section on locating other users, communicating with them, and sending electronic mail.

Chapter four introduces the Linux file system. It describes the tree-like organization of the Linux file system, introduces files and directories, and describes how to work with them.

Chapter five introduces the command-line shell and related topics including input and output redirection, pipes and the file name wild card characters “?” and “*”. The material in this chapter is not specific to any of the common command-line shells, but instead introduces the features common to all of them.

Most users expect computers to have a graphical user interface (GUI). Therefore, the sixth chapter introduces the X Window System—the most common windowing system available to Linux users. Chapter six contains an introduction to the X Window System and its user interface components—buttons, sliders, and kin—and the mouse. It also describes briefly two of the most popular window managers available for X—MWM (Motif Window Manager) and FVWM (Feeble Virtual Window Manager) and provides information on customizing each.

In the seventh chapter, Mark introduces two very important topics—networking and the Internet. He describes the different network types and the various network utilities typically found on a machine running Linux. He also explains how to access both Usenet newsgroups and the World Wide Web.

Chapters eight and nine introduce the ubiquitous vi text editor and the Emacs text editor, respectively. While not the WYSIWYG writing tools many new users of Linux expect, they are inarguably an essential part of the repertoire of programmers, system administrators, web developers and others. The chapter on the vi editor is quite complete. The chapter on Emacs contains just enough material to get you going, but nowhere near enough to make you a master of this complex but powerful tool. No manual entry for p Chapter eleven introduces the topic of shell programming (or writing shell scripts).

In chapter fourteen, Mark introduces the tools of the programmer's trade—the C compiler, make and the source code management utilities. This chapter is easy to read but the material is not really necessary. Readers with any programming experience at all will find it far too basic, and beginners won't find enough information to make them into even fledgling programmers.

The final chapter of part one, chapter fifteen, introduces system administration. In this chapter the reader is taught how to boot the Linux system, backup files, install software, and rebuild the kernel.

Part II is a command reference that is quite well done. Each entry in the reference describes the syntax of a command, summarizes its operation, describes its arguments and options, provides a few noteworthy comments and illustrates several examples of its use. While there is nothing here that couldn't be obtained from a careful reading of the man pages for each command, the format is easier to read and the examples are far more useful. Occasionally an entry omits some of the less used features of a command. In those cases you'll have to refer to the man pages for the command or to other documentation.

Four appendices round out the book—one on regular expressions, one on accessing the copious Linux documentation available on-line (appropriately titled “Help!”), one on software emulators and one on POSIX and POSIX compliance.

My overall impression of Mark Sobell's book was positive. The chapters on the various command line shells easily took top honors for best of the book. Like it or not, the command line is an integral part of using Linux, and familiarity with one of the available shells is necessary to fully utilize its power. Users new to the Linux world will undoubtedly be daunted by the flexibility offered by the even the simplest shells—especially if their previous experience was limited solely to the DOS shell. A good introduction, however, goes a long way toward making the process of learning painless, and once learned, the user will find the flexibility and power exciting.

The chapter on vi was very solid. I only use vi when I don't feel like waiting for Emacs to start—that turns out to be quite often when I'm performing system administration tasks. Consequently, I use vi a lot more than I ever thought I would. I have a feeling that vi is here to stay and that learning to use it effectively is best done early.

The chapter on networking was a mixed bag. The information on networks and networking was interesting, as was the overview of NFS and NIS. The coverage of common commands such as rlogin, ftp and ping was also very useful. On the other hand, I don't think anyone uses archie or gopher anymore. (It did dredge up nearly lost memories of a much smaller Internet, however.) In fact, I'd bet many people haven't even heard of them. The material on browsing the World Wide Web, while accurate, is already beginning to go out of date. The material in the book is based around what looks like Netscape 3.x and Netscape 4.0 is already out, with a completely new user interface. Omitted is any mention of Java or Javascript.

I liked the command reference in part II of the book. While not a replacement for the on-line manual pages, it was fun to flip through off-line. The on-line manual pages are great when you know what you're looking for, but they're not much fun to browse. Part II, on the other hand, made good reading while waiting for a compile to finish or a page to load into my browser.

The least useful chapter, in my opinion, was chapter fourteen—Programming Tools. The material presented seems too basic for an experienced programmer, yet too superficial for a beginner. But then, as I think more about it, one group does come to mind—those programmers who are proficient in C or C++ but who have gained all of that experience while working in an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) on another operating system. Compiling and building an application from a command-line environment would be a big change. Chapter fourteen would help them get started.

I found the sections on customizing FVWM and MWM, in chapter six, to be too brief. I'm also concerned that, given the existence of two mutually incompatible (from a configuration file perspective anyway) but common versions of FVWM (1.x, 2.x and 95), the section on FVWM configuration might cause more harm than good for beginners. Perhaps Mark could have mentioned configuration, explained what pieces of each window manager can be configured, pointed the reader in the direction of the manual page and moved on.

I also found the inclusion of material on the various emulators to be of little use. While I consider both Wine and Executor to be two of the most impressive products I have ever seen, given their current (sometimes extreme) limitations they are unlikely to be useful to any more than a small minority of Linux users. WABI and iBCS may have a slightly broader appeal, at least to those who need to run legacy applications, but neither emulator will replace the need for good native Linux implementations of solid application suites.

I would have liked a chapter on Perl. Like the command-line shells, Perl is a tool many users—especially those administering their own systems—will find useful. Indeed, whether one writes system administration programs, backup tools or CGI scripts, Perl seems to be the language of choice for a large number of experienced Linux users.

So, how did A Practical Guide to Linux do against the four challenges I mentioned earlier? It is definitely comprehensive (but that's the easy part). It's also relevant—most of the tools and utilities covered within its pages are here to stay. Aside from the material on the Internet (which admittedly is moving at a lightning pace), it is up-to-date. And, except for the chapter on programming, it is very practical.

The fact is, I'd buy it. It's every bit as good as any of the other Linux books available and better than many.

Todd Sundsted is a programmer, writer, and die-hard Linux enthusiast. He writes the “How-To Java” column for JavaWorld (http://www.javaworld.com/) and provides training and consulting through Etcee (http://www.etcee.com/). He can be reached via e-mail at tesundst@emss.com.

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