Sunday, November 1, 2009

Linux in a Nutshell, 6th Edition

Authors: Ellen Siever, Stephen Figgins, Robert love and Arnold Robbins
Format: Paperback, 942 pages
Publisher: O'Reilly Media; 6th edition (September 30, 2009)
ISBN-10: 0596154488
ISBN-13: 978-0596154486

I was going to swear that, with each successive edition of this book, the page count got larger and larger, but I checked, and it's stayed almost the same over the last three editions. O'Reilly says that the 4th edition was 944 pages long, but the 5th and 6th editions (the 6th being the latest) are both 942 pages. When I got my review copy in the mail and opened the box, the book seemed larger than I expected for some reason.

But if the book isn't getting larger and thus, filled with more recent and updated information about Linux, why publish subsequent editions? For that matter, can you call a book that's approaching 1000 pages a "Desktop Quick Reference?" To try and answer my first question, I took a look at the back cover and saw, "This updated edition offers a tighter focus on Linux system essentials, as well as more coverage of new capabilities..." Yes, the Linux kernel continues to evolve and thus, what you need to know about Linux system administration continues to change as well. While most of the common shell commands won't change, there are new ones that you'll need to know (and if you've bought this book or are intending to, you belong to that class of person who needs to know). Also, virtualization is huge these days and you can now manage Linux servers via Xen and VMware.

Linux in a Nutshell is considered a classic by anyone's standards, so it's expected to review well. In fact, the prior editions have reviewed extremely well so, in this case, turning in a bad review on the latest edition would mean that the authors and publisher must have completely rewritten the book and done a poor job of it. Fortunately, that's not the case here. Linux in a Nutshell, 6th Edition is a worthy successor to those editions that have come before it. You have three main reasons to buy it. First, you have the reason I've already mentioned; keeping up to date on the latest changes to Linux. Second, you've completely worn out your older copy of the book and need something that isn't hanging in rags. Third, you are new to Linux and need to buy a reference guide for the first time.

In a literary sense, some books are considered classics and almost legends. That may be a bit more rare in technical circles (is there such as thing as the equivalent of A Tale of Two Cites or To Kill a Mockingbird when it comes to Linux?), but it's not entirely unheard of. If the world of Linux has such a book, it's probably Linux in a Nutshell.

All that said, you will be disappointed in this book if you don't know what to expect, and I've read comments from people who were quite disappointed with this book. Hence writing reviews. Here's what not to expect. This is not a tutorial. It will not explain, step-by-step how to use Linux, particularly for the home or office desktop user (and with Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic Koala) having just been released, a large number of people are thinking of the Linux desktop). If you try to read this book cover-to-cover, you won't find it amusing or entertaining. It would be like trying to read an encyclopedia set or dictionary from A to Z. Yes, it would be very informative, but organized in a very rigid manner, and it will not read like a narrative.

This book is a reference in the same manner as the aforementioned encyclopedia and dictionary. You look up only what you need to know. It presupposes that the reader have some familiarity with Linux, at least enough to understand what information they require and how to use the book to find it. The list of shell commands runs from page 33 to page 503, for instance and is in alphabetical order. On the other hand, chapters such as The Bash Shell do contain narrative and explanatory components, so you do get more than raw shell commands and arguments. Still, it is not a good book as your first exposure to Linux documentation or as an introduction to topics like the bash shell, the vi text editor, or the gawk programming language. It would be like trying to learn English by reading a dictionary. A dictionary is better utilized once you know at least the basics of the language and want to pick up something specific.

Both Git and Subversion version control system commands are well covered in the later chapters, but as I said, you'd better know the basics first, rather than expect to learn them for the first time here. As promised, Virtualization Command-Line Tools sits in the last chapter of the book, giving you fingertip access to the commands and options involving KVM, VMware, and Xen virtualization tools.

This book's 6th Edition is indeed a worthy inheritor to those that have come before it and carries on the tradition of providing A Desktop Quick Reference for Linux shell commands and utilities. If you've owned a prior edition, this update is now available as a replacement. If you are learning Linux administration for the first time and have the basics down, you're ready to buy this edition as your first experience to Linux in a Nutshell.


1 comment:

  1. While I don't know if I've bought any
    version of this book used (I think
    I have at least "unix in a nutshell"),
    I bought "running linux 4th edition"
    on sale (store was closing) before
    deciding on Freebsd (box set), having
    tried just one live Linux CD. That
    linux book helped a lot learning FreeBSD.
    So I would recommend a used earlier version
    if one is on a budget, esp. if one
    visits to see what it is... and
    checks its mailing lists (freebsd-questions)
    for differences and possible advantages over
    linux... Not to disparage the latter, if
    one wants a already-customized open-source
    operating system...


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