Unix/Linux Survival Guide, by Erik M. Keller, USBN 1-58450-433-1

Reviewed by: Robert Boardman, January 2006
Published by: Charles River Media
Requires: Unix/Linux operating system; Perl version 5.x or greater; Java Runtime Environment (JRE) 1.3 or newer for the DocBook example
MSRP: US$39.95, CA$53.95

I have had this book for some time, reading it, working through some of the samples. It's the kind of book that lets a reader do that. It does not scream to be picked up, read immediately or strictly obeyed. It sits and waits. Although what it offers is not flashy or even particularly new, it contains a great deal of value for the right person. It is part of Charles River Media's "Administrator's Advantage Series" and states quite explicitly that it is designed to teach Unix system administrators what they need to know to avoid system breakdowns. I suggest it also teaches what system administrator need to know to avoid personal breakdowns.

Author Erik M. Keller begins with the premise that system administration is a creative process (perhaps a novel thought for many people considering that system administration appears at its core to be a purely technical discipline). Keller reveals an immense amount of information in a relatively small space (less than 300 pages). About twenty of those pages are devoted to "One Liners" which are very short, usually one line commands that do useful single tasks. For example, one line of code will reveal all the directories on a hard drive sorted in descending order of occupied disk space. Running such a listing on a regular basis will be helpful to many administrators. Ever want to convert all of the file names in one directory to upper case or lower case (often useful on a web server)? The instructions are here—again, featuring one line of command typing.

The book starts with tools and methods which can help administrators get to know the systems they inherit. Some basic tools like $PATH and some more advanced items are presented like discovering who can be a superuser. Keller talks about using ps and sar with some switches to discover what is running. Chapter two has details about building and running shell scripts and automating processes with at and cron. Chapter 3, the second longest in the book, goes into detail about system maintenance: how to know when things are going wrong, how to take control of users, how to use system logs to provide appropriate information. Backup strategies and tools, installation and set-up and building a test system follow. The longest chapter is also the second last, and deals with security for files, systems and networks. Finally the author takes a little time to mention ethics for system administrators. Four appendices follow with information about Internet sources for software, the above-mentioned one liners, and a description of the material on the included CD.

This is a book for people who already know what they're doing. At the beginning Keller says that the tools he uses may not be in the same directories on every system but that the reader will not have trouble finding the correct directories on their systems. He gives no further advice for locating needed executables, assuming, rightly I believe, that an experienced system administrator will know how to find what is needed and how to change the scripts and instructions which are presented as examples. Keller spends no time at all explaining why the man pages are important, he simply mentions them as sources of information a few times. He expects administrators know the importance of backups and so discusses strategies and methods using tar and rcs.

This is not a book that is used to complete a project. This is also not a book for those who want to experiment with the command line in Linux or BSD. What it does do extremely well is provide straightforward examples and explanations that will be of interest and great help to beginning and intermediate *nix administrators—people who have servers that need to be reliable and secure. This book will be of help in organizing and simplifying routine tasks as well as helping administrators identify when a server is not acting as it should. It is clearly written, and individual topics and parts of chapters can be studied without having to wade through irrelevant material. It is one of those books that will stay within easy reach on my reference shelf, regularly used for quite some time to come.

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