posted by Adam S on Wed 30th Jan 2002 17:25 UTC
IconWith more and more people migrating away from Microsoft's platforms, it's increasingly important for alternative operating systems to be well documented in order to attract and maintain new users. FreeBSD is already well documented; its on-line handbook is an extremely well detailed guide to the OS as a whole. But for the user new to FreeBSD, or even Unix as a whole, salvation may come in the form of SAMS' FreeBSD Unleashed by Michael Urban and Brian Tiemann.

As a complete, free, stable, multi-user, application-rich operating system, there are many compelling reasons to switch to FreeBSD. Urban and Tiemann's book pick you up at step one, asking "Why use FreeBSD?" They explore the basics of the OS: its strengths, its history, its design - even compare it to other OSes. Sections cover installation, general use, administration of the system, networking, and the X-Windows system.

In the past, I've said, "it's far from ready for the average user, however, as it matures, it has great promise in becoming a serious player in the OS market next to Linux." While I still believe it true that FreeBSD is a stretch for the general user, Mr. Urban might be inclined to disagree with me, and after reading his book, you might too. FreeBSD Unleashed is so well detailed that it targets not only the curious, but the general computing population. The key to this user-friendliness is the lack of assumption that the reader understands advanced concepts. As early as the first chapters, there is significant description of the system structure, a two page explanation of swap space, and an introduction to the X-Windows system. Introducing the GUI so early shows that Mr. Urban expects his audience not only to run FreeBSD on their servers, but on their desktop as well.

Tasks covered in detail include configuring a web server, configuring an FTP server, the ports tree, Perl programming, NFS, network printing, DHCP, DNS, NAT/gateway, CVSUpping your system, and firewall configuration among many others. I have never professed to be a FreeBSD expert, but after reading FreeBSD Unleashed, I'm almost convinced I could tackle some more advanced tasks. As a network administrator, many of the topics covered in FreeBSD Unleashed are not new to me. But for many, this might be the first time they've run across such terms as DNS, bash, BIND, Perl, or FTP. Unleashed combats this by introducing all topics and giving some background to various protocols, processes, and languages. At first glance, FreeBSD Unleashed has a single goal: Make FreeBSD accessible to all computer users.

What's Good

FreeBSD has many potential uses. Larger companies might use it as a file server OS. ISPs might use it as a web server. Smaller companies might use it as a complete server solution. Many might use it as a desktop OS. Whereas an OS like Windows has compromised some functionality in favor of usability, FreeBSD has maintained a rigid stance that performance and security come first. FreeBSD Unleashed seems to approach all tasks from zero and build upward. Chapter 9, for example, is dedicated to the FreeBSD filesystem. It covers mostly what you might expect: mounting and unmounting foreign filesystems, a list of supported filesystems, the FreeBSD filesystem - FFS, even introduces you to journaling and SoftUpdates. The authors took it a step further though, and walk you through a real world experience: adding more space to a dwindling /home partition. There is not only instruction, but suggestion for how to run an efficient server.

Many *nix users are familiar in some form or fashion with programming. 'FreeBSD Unleashed' explores Perl and shell programming, kernel configuration and optimization, and even some web server configuration using .htaccess and .htpasswd files. There is just enough of this to reach the goal of configuring and customizing a FreeBSD system.

Another section I found particularly informative and well written was called "System Configuration." While much of the content was fairly low level, this is exactly the kind of documentation that makes FreeBSD more accessible to new users. A guide that seeks to cater to the elite should provide a roadmap for the uninitiated. Someone with only the beginnings of knowledge of a FreeBSD system should be able to use the book to manipulate and troubleshoot their own system. If that is a goal of this book, it is a rousing success.

I was also pleased to see sections devoted to "Installing Additional Software" and "Advanced X-Windows configuration." In my opinion, FreeBSD is an emerging desktop OS. Yes, it's been around for nearly 10 years and it's BSD core for nearly 30, but it is now becoming truly usable and competitive on the desktop. FreeBSD Unleashed acknowledges the different needs of desktop users as compared to that of server administrators and do the movement justice and perform a great service. I have received many e-mails from those insistent that a GUI is the death of functionality of an OS, but I stand firm; desktop acceptance comes hand-in-hand with a graphical user interface. While Unleashed covers GUI topics, the majority of the book attempts to teach you how to effectively use the command line to administer and configure your system. This book is a nice in-between, the hope is that upon completion you are able to use your system practically.

The sections on networking and system configuration are also very well written and quite necessary. FreeBSD's strengths are well covered. There is a good chance that many readers will eventually seek to replace some part of their network with FreeBSD - primarily the gateway or a web server. These sections are thorough and excellently detailed.

Urban and Tiemann were smart: though the book is truly intended to cover version 4.x, there is a good amount of discussion of the structure of the forthcoming FreeBSD 5.0, scheduled for release in November 2002. In fact, included with the book are two CDs, one with the install disc of version 4.4, the second with a snapshot of version 5.0-CURRENT. Because of this the book will stay relevant longer.

Table of contents
  1. "Overview, What is Good"
  2. "What is Not So Good, Conclusion, Second Opinion"
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