There has been a spate of books about Linux recently. This is, without a doubt, no bad thing. However, a dilemma arises when deciding which book to spend your hard-earned (or hard-sponged, for us students) money on. In addition, three of these books have been observed with CDs tucked surrepititiously inside their covers. This further confuses the choice.
There is a Holy Grail at stake here. Each of these publishers seems to have the aim of producing the Only Way To Buy Linux, a complete distribution and documentation set that would challenge commercial OS developers - and guarantee a steady stream of readers for its more obscure technical publications.
I purchased Linux Unleashed published by SAMS, and written by Kamran Husain and Timothy Parker (who have been involved in other books in the Unleashed series). It retails at a shade under forty pounds, and is a sizeable tome with a CD included in the price. This satisfied three concerns:
I will discuss the success of the book in these key areas at the end of this review.
This is no small book. It attempts to touch on everything the Linux user might want to know about. With such an ambitious remit, it is bound to fail in places. The majority of the discussion areas in the book attempt to give a small but significant taster of the details of that area, with some by neccessity deeper, and some, because of the complexity of the topic, litte more than an overview.
The book is well presented, and colourfully bound, giving Linux the eyecatching frontage it needs, for once. The standard product line appearance puts Linux on a par with Netware and UNIX proper.
It consists of these sections:
An appendix contains the full GNU GPL, a list of FTP sites and documentation sources, and a list of Commercial product vendors for Linux.
Each section is littered with hints, tips, notes, cautions, and warnings, and is summarised chapter by chapter. The guides to using shells are particularly well written, as is the installation guide. Other areas of note are the XView and Motif programming tutorials, and the TCl / Tk and Perl discussions, although I admit I was none the wiser about Smalltalk /X after reading its description. Obviously some of these areas are too deep to enter into, and to give the authors credit, they almost always point to additional sources of information about all of the topics they discuss. One notable example is the C++ 'tutorial', which unfortunately fails to scratch the surface of the topic, but is tantalisingly aimed at the jaded C hacker.
Linux Unleashed also provides has a good basic explanation of the workings of the kernel, and a wonderful description of the Wine project by, I presume, one of its members, which explains the need for translation between X and MS-Windows with clear diagrams and an informative style.
The whole book has high 'flick potential' for out-of-sequence perusal and general dipping in. Some occasional illogical section ordering can hamper this, but the index is excellent, so this book is bound to please even the most knowledgeable Linux users occasionally.
However, the cover makes several claims about the book's content. One is that the book is 'Guaranteed Timely & Accurate' when it is only current for XFree86 2.x.x (the CD has 3.1.1), and another is that it has 'extensive cover of networking', when it skips idly over SLIP (surely the most use for the European reader ?), focussing instead on UUCP. One explanation for this is the American bias of the book, which targets a mass of CompuServe and AOL users.
Another claim is that Macmillan Publishing (parent of SAMS), will provide technical support for Linux as well as for the CD. That is an honourable gesture, and may well place them in the lead for the aforementioned Grail. Will somebody try them out ?
The CD contains a complete Slackware 2.2.0 distribution - so no more disk sets. This means X11R6 in the form of XFree86 3.1.1, GCC version 2.6.3, kernels in the 1.2 revision series, and all the other things you have come to expect from Slackware (without the hash marks in the ftp session !). It also has some extras.
The first is a live filing system. This comes in two variants (one that allows you to make symbolic links, so that you can run all the packages with config files in a writable /etc). This filing system is useful for trying out packages, or for infrequently accessed packages and information such as FAQs and HOWTOs.
The second extra is the complete source to the Slackware installation - arranged in disk sets like the binary distribution. This is wonderful for explorative types like me.
The third, and for me most pleasing extra was the contrib/ directory, which held some surprises. The first was the complete Andrew distribution - something that I have never dared download (it is 35mb in size !), as well as the latest versions of the individual Andrew packages. The new version of the Andrew word-processor, ez, now has a truly stunning fully fledged HTML capability, which is just like typing into a Netscape or Mosaic window. This directory also contains GNU Common Lisp and the new GNU Ada Translator, as well as a useful printer filter program.
And of course, both X and SVGA versions of DOOM are on the disk too!
The disk truly is timely and accurate - there are few kernels later than 1.2.1 that are more stable, and it all seems to be working. However, there is no noticeable documentation for using the live filing system, and not more than a passing contents list for the contrib directory. Not that this would put off a second- or third- time Linux installer, but it would be unnerving for the uninitiated.