Book Review

Linux Configuration & Installation, 4th Edition

Authors: Patrick Volkerding, Kevin Reichard, and Eric Foster-Johnson
Publisher: M & T Books
ISBN: 0-7645-7005-6
Price: US $39.99 (Softbound, with 2 CDs)
Reviewer: Bob van der Poel

It seems like only yesterday that I sent off to Walnut Creek for my Slackware 96 CDs. When I received the four CD set it came with a tiny installation manual which I followed to the last detail. A few hours later I had Linux (if I recall correctly it was kernel 2.0.0) running on my PC. Since that eventful day I have not reinstalled Linux on my main system. So, I guess that if we ignore all the upgrades I've done in both hardware and software over the years, I'm still running the same system. I know that all this has little to do with the book review promised in this article's title, but I do want you to know my own bias toward Slackware—it's what I use. And, yes, I know I should wipe the whole mess that I now have and reinstall a more current version—but to tell the truth I'm so darned scared of what might go wrong, I'm continuing my procrastination for a while longer.

I have played with other distributions. Red Hat is no harder or easier to install, and S.U.S.E. comes with a much more novice-friendly manual. But, I'm not about to enter the muddy waters of which distribution is better, best or worst. Too much like arguing about religion, politics or text editors. Let me just state that I'd recommend Slackware only to those who have more than a passing knowledge of computers and operating systems—other distributions may be more directed to the novice.

The book, Linux Configuration & Installation, is an enhanced version of the pamphlet which is shipped with the Walnut Creek distributions. A very, very much enhanced version.

The 560 page book comes with two CD ROMs. The first is the standard Slackware installation with the 2.0.34 kernel—not the latest and greatest, but certainly a stable version. The second CD has a number of other packages, mostly with full source. Unlike previous version of Slackware in which you need to create boot disks, you can now boot directly off the CD for your initial installation if your BIOS supports this (most newer ones do). The CD can also be used as a rescue disk.

Chapter 1 (a full 43 pages) covers the hardware requirements for a successful installation. Yes, 43 pages of hardware issues. I'm sure if your hardware problem isn't covered here, you'll have great difficulty finding it anywhere else. I should also point out that this version of Linux is only for an Intel PC architecture.

Chapters 2 and 3 cover the actual installation of Linux on your PC and configuring the X Window System. Again, lots of detail.

In chapter 4 the authors detail advanced issues: recompiling a custom kernel, printers and networking.

If you are using a laptop, you'll find chapter 5, "Portable Computing Devices" very useful. There is not a lot of text in this chapter—essentially it just tells you that Linux works with most laptops. The useful part is that it then lists over 500 models and brands of laptops known to be compatible and any problems you can expect with some combinations. Many web resources are listed for optimizing specific models.

The remainder of the book, chapters 6 to 9, cover internet issues, a summary of basic Linux commands and applications, and basic system administration.

If I have a complaint about the book is that some of the detail in the first half becomes almost painful to wade though. You may find it useful in certain situations, and as such it is a good resource. I gave the book and CDs to a friend who really isn't a computer guru, but is mildly interested in trying out Linux. He's installed Windows 95/98 dozens of times (I don't know why he is re-installing it all the time, but that's another story), so has some knowledge. He spent a bit of time reading the book, decided it was all too complicated, and never even bothered to try booting from the CD. I think that my friend is more typical than many readers of this magazine might care to admit. I understand that other distributions are addressing the fear-of-installation much better than Slackware. Hopefully as Linux matures we can look forward to easier installations, and yet retain the great flexibility we have come to expect.

The second part of the book, the various overviews, are an excellent introduction for people who haven't yet earned any Unix merit badges. It will not make a wizard out of a new user, but should start them out on the correct path. I'm sure that if my friend had simply booted the disk, followed the on-screen instructions, and then used this part of the book as a reference he would have managed the install quite successfully. Quite correctly, the authors mention that they are only touching the surface of many topics and recommend further resources.

One real weakness I discovered in the book was the way printers are handled. Setting up Ghostscript is covered in a short section, but there isn't any advice on handling some fairly basic (and to the new user, difficult) problems. I can only assume that the authors had an expensive Postscript printer hooked up to their own Linux boxes and were spared learning how to write "stair-step" filters and custom printcap files. Many printer problems are easily handled with print filters, but there is no mention of this in the book.

Even though this book covers installation of a Slackware Linux distribution, I do think that there is much in it which will benefit new users, as well as advanced users installing different distributions. I will certainly keep it as a reference. The authors certainly know what they are writing about...but I have to wonder if all this detail is necessary.

NOTE: This review originally appeared in "The Linux Journal, Strictly On-Line", November 1999.

All rights are retained and reserved by the author, Bob van der Poel

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