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Books: A User's Report

Elizabeth Zinkann

I recently had the distinct honor to be chosen by Sys Admin readers as the author of the best article published in 1994. I believe that this is a reflection of the desire of system administrators for current, readable, and reliable information. As a result of this choice, I was flown to SANS '95 (The 4th UNIX System Administration, Networking, and Security Conference) to present an updated version of the article. Since my columns involve book reviews, I presented a list of my favorite technical books and why they rate that status. I have been requested both by my editor and by several people who attended the conference to summarize and publish the results, so that will appear first, followed by a few new book reviews.

My first choice is not really a computer book at all. Preventing Computer Injury: The Hand Book (ISBN 1-884388-01-9, Ergonome, Inc., New York, N.Y. (212) 222-9600 $19.95), by concert pianist Stephanie Brown, is essentially a health book for computer users. Ms. Brown discovered these health problems while studying music. She developed a method to prevent RSIs (Repetitive Stress Injuries) for pianists and later adapted them to help computer teachers. The book encompasses both the right and wrong way to hold yourself, your wrists, and your hands, exercises, adjustments, and massages. I have tried everything in this book and it all works. This is one of the books I keep recommending.

Another book dear to my heart is The UNIX Programming Environment (ISBN 0-13-937681-X, Prentice Hall, $28.95) by Brian Kernighan and Rob Pike. This was my first and only UNIX book for several courses and I still refer to it. When asked a UNIX question, I can find more answers quickly in this book than in any other. At one time or another, I have studied the entire book, so that it is quite like an old friend. I have two other copies of this book, but when asked, I always refer to the one with yellow highlighter, penciled comments in the margin, held together by clear contact paper. In addition to my sentimental attachment to it, I appreciate the fact that Kernighan and Pike present a readable text, progressing from simple to complex concepts.

One book that thoroughly impressed me is W. Richard Stevens' Advanced Programming in the UNIX Environment (ISBN 0-201-56317-7, Addison-Wesley, $56.97). My family is not computer-literate, by choice. Usually, I don't try to talk to them about computers, programming, or operating systems, particularly UNIX. However, when I read this book, there was no stopping me. I rhapsodized about it for days!!! This was no ordinary book . . . this was a UNIX encylopedia in disguise. I have several books (actually several bookshelves of books) that cover part of this book's topics, but not as well. The scope, the detail, and the style that Stevens used in writing this book make it an extraordinary text.

A favorite administration book is UNIX Systems Advanced Administration and Management Handbook (ISBN 0-02-358950-7, Macmillan, $48.00) by Bruce and Karen Hunter. When it was published, I was not administering a system and read the book more for pleasure than to solve problems. It remains a friendly, readable book which discusses everyday obstacles, their solutions, how those solutions were discovered, and how to apply the same principles to locate answers to your specific problem. At the time, it was one of only a few books that mentioned AIX and sendmail. The sequel, UNIX Networks: A Guide for System Administrators (ISBN 0-13-089087-1, Prentice Hall, $26.95), is more detailed and explains many new issues facing the network administrator.

Another system administration favorite is the Nemeth, Snyder, Seebass, and Hein Unix System Administration Handbook ( ISBN 0-13-151056-7, Prentice Hall ). For a long time, this was the only book I would recommend, particularly to beginning administrators. Its style is readable and practical, and it has a firm basis in reality. Now in its second edition, it includes a CD-ROM and instructions on how to use it. It covers a number of UNIX variants and is very complete in its coverage.

Firewalls and Internet Security: Repelling the Wily Hacker, by Cheswick and Bellovin (ISBN 0-201-63357-4, Addison-Wesley, $29.00), cannot be ignored. I don't need to expound upon the importance of firewalls, security, or pre-ordained network policies; Cheswick, Bellovin, and Berferd have done it for me. It is intelligible, true to life, and excellently done. I became intrigued by the first chapter. The TCP/IP Protocol Suite is now a given -- something that everyone uses or will use. The authors point out the flaws and weaknesses in TCP/IP and show just how vulnerable your system can be without proper security measures.

The next selection is actually three books. I have often been asked by beginning system administrators to recommend books that can help them. I think that these three books together will answer most questions, provide ongoing help, and generate future support. The three, all from O'Reilly, are Essential System Administration, System Performance Tuning, and TCP/IP Network Administration. Essential System Administration (ISBN 0-937175-80-3, $29.95), by leen Frisch, is the introduction that provides constant support and help; System Performance Tuning (ISBN 0-937175-60-9, $24.95), by Mike Loukides, tells how to obtain the most from your system; and TCP/IP Network Administration (ISBN 0-937175-82-X, $29.95), by Craig Hunt, provides an excellent introduction to TCP/IP. While it does not provide the depth of the Richard Stevens or the Comer treatment of TCP/IP, it is an excellent overview and reference for TCP/IP. Separately, these are superb books. Together, they form a cohesive unit that is difficult to beat.

UNIX Power Tools is a unique book and a browser's paradise. The entries are concise and to the point. Reading one article takes virtually no time at all. However, they are rather like potato chips: no one can read just one. If you need an answer quickly, this is the place to find it. A single entry can be found, read, and used to solve the problem in no time at all. UNIX Power Tools (ISBN 0-679-79073-X, Random House, $59.95) contains a wealth of information, brief explanations, and a CD-ROM. It was one of the first books to include a CD-ROM, and is certainly one of the most valuable.

UNIX Installation Security & Integrity (ISBN 0-13-015389-3, Prentice Hall, $36.00), by David Ferbrache and Gavin Shearer, impressed me very much when I first read it. It includes process security, cryptography, network security, and trusted systems, among other topics. It delved into Privacy Enhanced Mail (PEM) and firewalls, long before those topics rated their own books. The book's depth and range of topics make it very useful. I felt that this book was overshadowed when it debuted and never received the credit that it deserves.

The Downloader's Companion for Windows, by Scott Meyers and Catherine Pinch (ISBN 0-13-342254-2 Prentice Hall $19.95), is one of my priceless little books. I have a little niche to the left of my computer keyboard which will just accommodate a few of these small books. I tend to use them often. This is one book that I think should accompany every computer sold. Is there a Sys Admin reader who has not been asked how to download or asked "Remember those pictures you sent me? Were they ALL supposed to be pink and green? What do I do now?" or "I can't read the file you sent me!" For the Windows platform, this book provides the answers; it allows the administrator to say "look it up" and return to the task of administering the system.

There is one trend in books that I would like to note. We have moved from the simple to the complex; from the specialist's book to a text for everyone. What this means to the reader is a matter of physical fitness. Instead of carrying two 200-page books, he or she now transports a single 1500-page book. The newer books address everyone: novice, intermediate, and advanced user. Books used to be written for the beginner or for a system administrator with experience; today's audience includes both. As in most situations, there are benefits and disadvantages. Macmillan's "Unleashed" series is excellent, as are their "Inside" editions.

My column in Sys Admin changes constantly. My criterion for selecting a book is based on the book's relevance to system administrators. If I think a system administrator either needs or would be able to use a text's information, or if it will simplify his or her job, I try to review it. I also try to include books that reflect the best in their field. Often, this will encompass books on the Internet, online services, and email habits of users, so the administrator is aware of what he or she must protect.

Another one of my priceless little books is The Element of E-mail Style (ISBN 0-201-62709-4, Addison-Wesley, $12.95) by Angell and Heslop. (For those who heard my presentation, this review was not included due to time constraints. However, since it was part of the originally planned presentation, I decided to describe it in this column.) The authors show the correct ways to send email, which occasionally uses different rules than normal composition. This book becomes an extremely valuable tool when you are composing email (although I still cannot break the habit of spacing twice following the end of a sentence). This selection also provides useful guidelines for responding, particularly to inflammatory messages, writing carefully versus dashing off an extemporaneous reply, choosing the proper words, spelling them correctly, and conveying the appropriate tone in the message.

Thanks to Peter Salus, who loaned me the single copy available at SANS of Casting the Net, From ARPANET to INTERNET and beyond . . . (ISBN 0-201-87674-4, Addison-Wesley), I am able to present a quick review. (As I spoke, 48 copies were delivered to Cucumber Books at the show.) This is a tale of the Internet -- how it started and how it grew. To see where you are going, you have to know where you have been. This book does an admirable job of showing where we have been, why, and how, from the people who were there.

The Internet book that I recommend most for system administrators is Managing Internet Information Services (ISBN 1-56592-062-7, O'Reilly & Associates, Inc. $29.95). It contains the information that administrators need when approaching the Internet and its services.

As an update to the presentation, a software version of The Hand Book methodology, entitled "KeyMoves," will debut this summer for both the Windows and Macintosh platforms. Now, on to some new books, which although not yet favorites, are definitely worth reading.

Panic! Unix System Crash Dump Analysis
by Chris Drake and Kimberley Brown
Prentice Hall
ISBN 0-13-149-386-8
CD-ROM Included

Although I smiled at the title of this book when it arrived, system crashes do not usually elicit smiles and laughter. A system crash is extremely serious, and finding out what caused the crash can be very difficult. This is the first book to address crashes, their causes, methods of deciding what happened, and solutions. This is not normally something that novice, or even experienced, system administrators would undertake. Instead, a guru, who produces tools from thin air (rather like Merlin or Gandolf), analyzes the problems, solves them, and disappears. However, the authors maintain that with the proper knowledge, an experienced administrator can do it. (As I recall doing it, they are probably correct in this assumption. It isn't fun, and requires some hard work in place of a flick of the wrist, but there is no magic to it, and it isn't done with mirrors.)

Drake and Brown address this book to system administrators with a couple of years experience. Some of the analysis requires programming, in both C and assembly language, but the authors realize that not every administrator is an experienced programmer, so they try to make those parts as easy as possible. The book is organized in three parts: Getting Started, Advanced Studies, and Case Histories. Getting Started introduces the system crash and the system hang, and explains the differences. Since both authors are employed by Sun Microsystems, the book uses Solaris 1 (based on BSD) and Solaris 2 (based on UNIX System V Release 4). The authors are also familiar with several UNIX variants, so the result produces general rules for UNIX crashes and analysis, while simultaneously illustrating how to accomplish specific tasks for Solaris 1 and 2. The first section also discusses what procedures to implement when a crash occurs, and how to perform initial analysis both with and without adb (absolute debugger). The authors present an introduction to adb, as well as a chapter examining how it works and its commands. Drake and Brown show how to use the /usr/include header files to your advantage, provide a look at symbol tables, and devote three chapters to adb macros.

The second section, Advanced Studies, begins with an introduction to assembly language, and to the SPARC assembly language in particular. Other necessary concepts presented include stacks, the kernel, virtual memory, scheduling, file systems, hardware devices and drivers, Interprocess Communication (IPC), STREAMS, trap handling, watchdog resets, interrupts, and multiprocessor kernels. The third segment, Case Histories, demonstrates the use of every concept previously discussed. Through the case studies, the authors evolve a logical procedure for approaching a crash.

Although the book is not for the novice administrator, the authors explain each topic simply and clearly, occasionally presenting multiple views of a concept, so that it is easily understood. They augment the text with figures and screen dumps whenever applicable and often present alternate ways to solve a problem. The CD-ROM contains several analysis tools, including some adb macros. The authors' expertise in the field is evident, and they have filled a void in the UNIX library.

The USENET Handbook A User's Guide to Netnews
by Mark Harrison
O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.
ISBN 1-56592-101-1 $24.95

USENET, also known as Netnews, is essentially a discussion forum. It delves into such varied subjects as software, hardware, operating systems, religion, politics, science, literature, and some frivolous topics as well. In The USENET Handbook, Harrison explains USENET and its history, and then discusses newsreaders. In order to read newsgroups, the user must have a newsreader. Since beginners occasionally find this hard to understand, the author explains newsreaders in general, discusses the different newsreaders available, and presents tutorials on the nn, tin, gnus, and Trumpet varieties. Harrison also includes a chapter on posting articles to the Net, including what, when, and where to post, as well as what and when not to post.

Given the sheer bulk of news, it becomes important to make efficient use of Netnews. Harrison devotes a chapter to Getting the Most Out of USENET, including FTP, mail servers, FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions), mailing lists, and administration. He also includes a useful Perl script that creates an index for your saved files. He covers practices you may encounter, such as flaming, net jargon, and encoded messages, and tells how to deal with them, explaining the concept of netiquette. Other topics detail Software, Pictures, Other Goodies (and where to find them), and Using Mail.

The appendices are perhaps the most important sections of this book, and will be the most used. Here, Harrison lists the current newsgroups and the alternative newsgroups. Each appears with a short description of what the user may expect to find within that particular newsgroup. This is a well-written book, serving both as an introduction to USENET and as a menu to what USENET has to offer. Harrison presents commands for different newreaders, and shows how to use them. He covers the most popular newsreaders for both UNIX and Windows platforms, and shows how to respond to postings, a procedure often confusing to the newcomer. The newsgroup directory will be welcomed by all, and in itself make the book a valuable resource and a handy reference guide. Overall, this is an excellent guide, one that will become essential to USENET users.

About the Author

Elizabeth Zinkann has been involved in the UNIX and C environments for the past 11 years. She is currently a UNIX and C consultant, and one of her specialities is UNIX education. In addition to her computer science background, she also has a degree in English. Elizabeth can be reached via CompuServe at 71603,2201 (Internet format:, or via America Online (