Book Review: The Best of FreeBSD Basics

Dru Lavigne’s very useful book turns the arcana of FreeBSD into a comprehensible set of tools.

The Best of FreeBSD Basics by Dru Lavigne
579 pp., Reed Media Services, December 2007

One of the first tasks most users accomplish on their FreeBSD system is setting up X and a window manager. True to her businesslike style Dru Lavigne’s book enters at the point of a freshly installed FreeBSD system, a % prompt on a terminal.

This book is a collection of hands-on tutorials at the basic user level, in both senses. A complete computer newbie should be able to use this information, and, of course, the % prompt is the basic user interface.

Not that she’s adverse to a nice GUI — there’s lots of information concerning the various window managers and desktop environments.

Dru Lavigne may be the perfect partner for a user who wants to set up a FreeBSD box for the first time. I suspect Dru in print might be close to what you’d get in person (as a tutor), with the added advantage of being able to leave her for breaks, or have her answer a question repeatedly.

Her style here is to sit with the reader at the % prompt and lead him or her through whatever steps it takes to accomplish a certain task, or series of tasks, with very concise, but not dry, explanations of what is happening and why.

She has the ability to condense a world of background and information into a few words: Once you have configured X, you’ll want to start customizing your desktop environment. If I type startx on a fresh X Server, the resulting GUI may prove functional, but it looks awful. If you’re unsure which window manager to install, is an excellent resource that provides screenshots of the most popular window managers and desktops.

If you like simplicity, configurability, and a clean look to a desktop, Windowmaker and XFCE are good choices. They also perform well on older video cards and computers with as little as 16MB of RAM.

If you have a new video card and lots of RAM and like a desktop with the works, KDE or Gnome was meant for you.

And beyond almost every conceivable basic task, Dru can show you how to perform really esoteric tasks — tasks thought up perhaps by someone with a drive to learn all she can herself and some extra time on her hands: When you install X, you get a whole suite of interesting utilities, many of which you may not be aware of. One of these is Xnest, which allows you to run multiple window managers simultaneously.

And she gets down to it from square one:

Confirm that you have Xnest installed with:

# pkg_info|grep nest<br />
# xorg-nestserver-6.9.0_1 Nesting X server from Xorg

If you just get your prompt back, install the program with the command:

# pkg_add -r xorg-nestserver

And so on. Whole chapters of the 579-pp. book are devoted to reference, such as Useful Commands and Using the vi Editor, and explanatory reference, such as Read The Friendly Manpage — A Tutorial, Where The Log Files Live and Discovering System Processes.

If any of the titles in the last paragraph sound daunting to the new user, not to worry. Dru will be there to explain in exquisitely clear language just what’s happening and why.

An updated and expanded collection of Dru’s excellent collection of online tutorials on the O’Reilly Network’s BSD DevCenter, this book is sure to find a treasured spot on the FreeBSD user’s bookshelf. Invaluable for newbies, it still contains something for everyone. I predict every FreeBSD user will find value in it.

Greg Lehey is famous in the UNIX community for his over 30 years in the industry, performing most jobs you can think of, ranging from kernel support to product marketing, systems programming to operating, and processing satellite data to programming gasoline pumps. His foreword includes: The nice thing about this sort of book is that you can always find something interesting, even if you have a lot of experience in the area. I’ve found interesting ideas; I hope you will too.

Buy the book: The Best of FreeBSD Basics

About the author:
Peter Hummers first installed NetBSD on a Macintosh IIsi in 1996, and never looked back. Since then he’s used FreeBSD or variants for his writing.


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