Book review: Linux Administration Handbook Second Edition by <i>Evi Nemeth, Garth Snyder, Trent R. Hein, et al</i>

Book review: Linux Administration Handbook Second Edition by Evi Nemeth, Garth Snyder, Trent R. Hein, et al


In my geek career, I have been many things: DBA, programmer, help-desk, engineer, systems administrator. I have worked with VMS, MS-DOS, various flavors of UNIX, MS-Windows of all sorts, OS/2, and MPE/iX. I have had a wide and various and satisfying career.

I can tell you without reservation, systems administration was the hardest and most demanding of all those jobs.

The book’s coverThe book’s cover

A systems administrator is generally all things to all people. In most cases, they are tech support. They are help desk. They are testers, and troubleshooters, and programmers. Good ones are also systems engineers, and the best are relied on by upper management to make IT decisions. Some of the worst are also relied on by upper management, but that usually ends in disaster, blame, tears, and recrimination.

There are very few books geared towards the systems administrator. Oh, sure, there’s a plethora of titles such as, “Administering Active Directory”, or “Managing Windows Networks”. In the end, these are usually books dedicated to a single program or technology.

Fortunately, there’s “Linux Administration Handbook”, by Evi Nemeth, Garth Snyder, Trent R. Hein, and a host of other contributors.

“Evi, Garth, and Trent taught me everything I know about GNU/Linux systems administration.”—Elvis

The contents

This is a hefty book, at 1000 pages exactly, not counting the “About the Authors” page or the roman-numeraled and extensive Contents section, but including the index. It’s heavy. This is a book not to be set aside lightly, as that’s physically impossible. It’s weight makes it practical for pressing two pieces of glued wood, or for chucking at ill-behaved dogs, such as my boykin spaniel Elvis.

If I were to choose one word to describe this book, other than “heavy”, I would choose “extensive”. This is a book that does not ignore history, but provides names, dates, and circumstances surrounding the otherwise-anonymous software we all know and love. Starting with a brief (very brief) history of GNU/Linux, the authors discuss sources of other information. The describe how to use man, and where to go for help in those rare times when man fails you. They describe how to do basic system administration tasks, such as managing user accounts, and managing hardware, and installing and upgrading software on production systems, and monitoring systems and security.

That’s just in the first chapter.

Then comes the fun stuff. Complete, in-depth descriptions of the boot-up and shut-down process. Discussions of various file systems, and how to use them properly. Installing new hardware. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to adding a disk. Another chapter provides a zoology of daemons. There are chapters on system performance, security, backup, the X Window system, serial devices...

If the subject falls under the realm of systems administration, there are probably at least a few pages dedicated to it in this book.

The book is very well laid out, considering the breadth of topics covered. There are thirty chapters, each with a distinct focus, grouped into three sections: Basic Administration, Networking, and Bunch O’ Stuff. Bunch O’ Stuff is just that. It even ends with a non-geek chapter: Management, Policy, and Politics, which discusses the business end of systems administration. This chapter is strangely compelling, covering topics such as disaster recovery, legal issues, and how the systems administrator fits into a typical organization.

This is not a comprehensive book, by any means. Although many alternatives are presented, some receive more attention than others. For instance, in the chapter covering email, the authors discuss Sendmail at length, and even spend eighteen pages on Postfix. Exim, however, is covered in only two pages. This is partly due to Exim’s comprehensive and clear on-line documentation, to which the authors refer the interested reader. But, this is a common theme. So don’t be disappointed if your favorite web server is hardly mentioned.

Who’s this book for?

This book is for every GNU/Linux systems administrator. If your day-to-day work requires the administration of one or more GNU/Linux systems, I highly recommend this book. I have been administering GNU/Linux systems since 1994, and I learned a few things from this book. Most seasoned administrators will probably find the book a fun, nostalgic read, rather than a great learning tool. But, for budding administrators, or even mid-level administrators, this book is rich in detail, well-written, and an almost-endless source of information.

If you are a budding geek with a desire to learn all about GNU/Linux, I recommend “Linux Administration Handbook” with reservations. The focus of the book is definitely systems administration. However, there’s more than enough information for someone who merely wants to learn more about their GNU/Linux computer, and the writing style is conversational and fun to read.

Relevance to free software

Refreshingly, the authors focus exclusively on free software. When relevant, commercial products are mentioned, but no real space is devoted to their use. This is in keeping with the philosophy of the book, which focuses on the tools most likely to be available to all systems administrators.

Pros

This is the descendant and heir apparent of the venerable “Unix Administrators Handbook”. For those who remember the original, this latest edition maintains the high quality writing and in-depth coverage of systems administration in a GNU/Linux environment. The authors take great pains to present an unbiased, clear, and often droll overview of GNU/Linux systems administration.

I was often surprised by their very practical advice. For instance, while discussing Kerberos, they say, “In our opinion, most sites are better off without it”, and suggest a regimen of “good systems hygiene” and secure shell.

All-in-all, their down-to-earth suggestions and detailed coverage of the most salient administration tasks make this an excellent book.

Cons

While this book is extensive, it is not comprehensive. Although it provides an excellent overview, this book will not make you a Sendmail expert, or a network administration expert. The discussions of a particular subject will give a good foundation for further investigation, but they will not solve all your administration problems.

Also, the cover is ugly. It is redeemed by being absurd.

Title Linux Administration Handbook
Author Evi Nemeth, Garth Snyder, Trent R. Hein, et al
Publisher Prentice Hall
ISBN 0131480049
Year 2007
Pages 1040
CD included No
FS Oriented 9
Over all score 8

In short

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Comments

clievers's picture
Submitted by clievers on

Thanks for the great review Anthony. I was curious about this book. It has a neat cover that's for sure. I'm definitely a "budding geek", with a desire to learn Linux. I know how to do a few things, however a lot of books are definitely for the more advanced. It sounds like this book would be a good book for the next stage, after the "beginning" stuff.

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let's all play nice!

Anthony Taylor's picture

This sounds like an excellent book for you. The original Unix Administration Handbook was invaluable to me. I learned a lot about Unix (and GNU/Linux, indirectly) from that book. The Linux Administration Handbook is, I think, even better. It makes fewer assumptions about your knowledge than the original book did, per my recollection.

Good luck with your continuing geek education. It's a long, tough, rewarding road.

clievers's picture
Submitted by clievers on

Okay, great! Thanks very much for your reply.

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let's all play nice!

trollzor's picture
Submitted by trollzor on

I would have to agree wholeheartedly with this review. I installed Linux (Turbo Linux 4 I think) first in 1998, but without documentation I didn't know how to get my 56k modem up and running and didn't return till a few years later. Lack of documentation is always a problem with some aspects of Linux, in my newbie days on Mandrake 8.2 and through the early Fedora releases I always wanted a definitive reference to help me out and explain the hows and the whys. After getting this book, I can say it is a good answer to many of these things, although focused on administrators this book will help the advanced user as the goal of both is to get the most out of their system. However, as Anthony points out, while it's huge but it doesn't cover everything you might want. After reading most of the book I thought they needed to remove the politics chapter (~65 pages) and slim down a few of the others and replace them with a good guide on the ins and outs of Bash. The authors defend their position saying this is background knowledge and that you should learn to read and modify perl and bash scripts and that for new projects you should learn perl or python more fully. Fair enough, but I think the base of those skills belong in this book, more so that some of the other content anyway. I think making those changes would make the book still just as useful for system administrators, while also bring power users into the fold more fully.

All that said, the book still hits the nail on the head for administration, even if a power user might feel some of the material doesn't apply it still has a vast amount of detail in those that do. I only have O'Reilly's “Linux System Administration” to compare it with. While the O'Reilly includes a section on Bash which I think is appropriate I would still recommend Linux Administration Handbook because of the detailed coverage of other areas even though the O'Reilly is around $5 cheaper. While the O'Reilly is has a better sense of what the market might want, this book totally dominates the rest of the subject matter with 1040 pages (good quality smooth-to-touch recycled paper) at only a slightly higher price than O'Reilly's 291 pages (good quality grain-to-touch thicker paper not recycled). With so few pages in the O'Reilly you can get to the how, but not to the why (+ a smidgen of history) which this book does with its lucid style. Thumbs up from me.

Author information

Anthony Taylor's picture

Biography

Tony Taylor was born, causing his mother great discomfort, and has lived his life ever since. He expects to die some day. Until that day, he hopes to continue writing, and living out his childhood dream of being a geek.