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Understanding the Linux Kernel

Daniel P Bovet and Marco Cesati
Published by O'Reilly Media
920 pages
£ 35.50
Published: November 25, 2005
reviewed by Aaron Wilson
   in the June 2006 issue (pdf), (html)

I was looking forward to reading this book, to improve my knowledge of the Linux Kernel and help to understand better (or at least begin to know where to look) to solve some of the issues that have occasionally cropped up when some of the hardware I have used doesn't behave. Having little knowledge of the Kernel internals it is often hard to understand what is going on.

I was pleasantly surprised that this book describes a relatively recent kernel (2.6.11), having expected kernel development to have leap massively forwards in the time taken to prepare and publish this book. I was also re-assured by the claim in about the book that all I would need to get stared is `some skill in C programming language and perhaps some knowledge of an assembly language' -- knowing that in the dim and distant past as part of a course I studied some assembly language. As this book is not an easy read, I would say that the pre-requisites are understated, and at times my lack of 80x86 assembly language at times made understanding -- in spite of the good explanations in the text -- hard work.

This brings me onto my next comment; this is not a book for the faint-hearted. I found it easy to read but hard to understand. Particularly as my knowledge of the architecture of the internals of a modern 80x86 PC is, to say the least sketchy. Also, I feel having studied a course in operating system design principles would be an advantage (although not a pre-requisite).

The authors encourage the reader to look at the source code while reading the text, and as I read this I thought it a good sentiment. However, while reading the book I felt no great need to rush and look at the code, the relevant extracts being presented. I also feel that at times the decision to work from the ground up -- and hence at times need to use forward references at times makes understanding harder than it needs to be.

This is not to say that this is not a book worth reading; from the start of the book I found this an excellent and informative read. It is not a book that I feel can be taken in in one reading, and I want to return to it and read again so that I can glean even more understanding of the Linux Kernel. I also think that this book does the job it sets out to do -- that is to acquaint the reader with the inner workings of the Linux kernel. Recently, having attended a one-day tutorial on the Linux Kernel -- which gave a great overview of this book but none of the detail -- I think this is a hard task to do, as there are so many things that need to be covered to give some understanding. However, this book does it well and I would recommend reading it.

This book covers only the basics of the kernel -- but as the authors themselves acknowledge, it would need more a library than a book to cover the whole topic. It does however cover the everything necessary to enable the reader to go and find their way around the kernel, and help them to understand what they find there.

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