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Essential Linux and Open Source Books

Compile your reading list

In keeping with our "Best of..." theme for this month, I'd like to provide some of the essential titles for learning Linux and open source.

These titles were gathered with feedback from our readers as well as other professionals in the field. We've divided the books into subject areas and gathered as much of a consensus as possible. The list of subject areas does not encompass all areas that an individual might need. For that reason I've included a new category, Best Linux and Open Source Publisher.

Best Linux and Open Source Publisher
Tie: O'Reilly & Associates and Addison-Wesley/Prentice Hall PTR
Honorable Mention: APress

There are a lot of publishers who put forth titles on Linux and open source technologies. Some of these titles are excellent but many are simply knock-offs of already-successful titles from other publishers. Too often publishers won't take risks on new subject areas until other books are successful, only to lament the lack of sales for their late-coming knock-off titles.

When you look for a title on a particular subject and can't choose between the different offerings in that area, it's helpful to note that titles published by O'Reilly & Associates and Addison-Wesley/Prentice Hall PTR generally have the longest useful life. It's for this reason, along with O'Reilly's willingness to take risks in new subject areas, that the two publishers are the Best Linux and Open Source Publishers. It's not surprising that many of the essential titles throughout this article are either O'Reilly or Addison-Wesley/Prentice Hall PTR books.

O'Reilly has long been the leader in Linux and open source publishing. The name O'Reilly has become synonymous with the definitive title in a given subject area and you can sometimes hear "Did you get the O'Reilly?" as a question posed from one reader to another. Even without knowing the exact title, simply buying the O'Reilly in a subject area is usually met with approval from your peers.

O'Reilly also offers a unique Internet-based library called Safari. Using Safari (, you can read full versions of books published by not only O'Reilly but also New Riders, Addison-Wesley, Prentice Hall PTR, Syngress, Sams, Cisco Press, Microsoft Press, and others. The books are fully searchable and, with an enhanced subscription, entire chapters can be downloaded as PDFs.

Addison-Wesley/Prentice Hall PTR enjoys a special place in the market for these two subject areas. Within these subject areas, Addison Wesley/Prentice Hall PTR clearly has the definitive title. For example, TCP/IP Illustrated Volume 1 by W. Richard Stevens is the first and last source necessary for learning IP, TCP, UDP, ICMP, and other related protocols. The Unix Network Programming series by W. Richard Stevens, et al, from Addison-Wesley is the standard by which other programming titles are judged.

An honorable mention in this category could go to many publishers but Apress now stands out as having a catalog that is quickly growing with Linux and open source titles including some new subject areas. Apress is up and coming in the area of Linux and open source publishing and we'll be excited to see their new titles over the next year.

Command Reference
Essential Title: Linux in a Nutshell by Ellen Siever and the staff of O'Reilly & Associates (O'Reilly)
Honorable Mention: None

Linux in a Nutshell has gone through a number of revisions and continues to add value with each new revision. It's one of the few titles that includes comprehensive coverage of the available commands while being far more than a simple rehash of the main pages. Chapters in this 900+ page volume include a chapter on Linux commands that's over 400 pages, and chapters on boot loaders, shells, vi, sed, and others.

Linux in a Nutshell is an essential title for the administrator who can't recall every variation and nuance of every command on the system and wants a one-stop source for day-to-day assistance with Linux. O'Reilly also has Nutshell books in other categories that are worth a look if you're working in that field.

Shell Scripting
Essential Title: Wicked Cool Shell Scripts by Dave Taylor (No Starch Press)
Honorable Mention: None

What we consider to be one of the best books on Linux shell scripting ever written, and one that is a must for any new- or intermediate-level Linux administrator, is Wicked Cool Shell Scripts. This is the book that every other publisher tries to imitate. Unless you know shell inside and out, this book should be on your bookshelf.

Most of the reviewers for this article are comfortable on the command line and we have written more than our share of scripts, yet these same admins find this book to be handy when we simply want the answer without having to develop and debug the entire script ourselves. We only wish that this book had been out back in the early 1990s so we could have learned scripting quicker.

An honorable mention cannot be made in this category since Wicked Cool Shell Scripts is so far above anything else available in this area.

The e-mail subject area is split into a few different categories due to the varied software available in this area.

Essential Titles: Sendmail by Bryan Costales and Eric Allman (O'Reilly)
Sendmail Cookbook by Craig Hunt (O'Reilly)
Honorable Mention: None

Two O'Reilly titles serve everyone's Sendmail administrator's needs. The aptly titled Sendmail is the quintessential O'Reilly title, providing everything necessary to learn the application while at the same time diving deep into the application. For some, the Sendmail book is simply too much. For that reason, O'Reilly's Sendmail Cookbook gives you all of the common tasks in recipe-style format for quick and easy reference.

If you're searching for a book on Sendmail, don't look any further than either (or both) of these books.

Essential Titles: Postfix: The Definitive Guide by Kyle D. Dent (O'Reilly)
Postfix by Richard Blum (Sams)
Honorable Mention: None

Both titles under consideration for this category were good in their own respect as they provide the reader with the basics of Postfix. Someone new to Postfix might find Postfix to be more at their level but Postfix: The Definitive Guide also has basic information and a little more. In short, neither title stands largely above the other.

Essential Title: The Procmail Companion by Martin McCarthy (Addison-Wesley)
Honorable Mention: None

Though not an SMTP server like Sendmail, Postfix, or Qmail, Procmail is quite popular for processing e-mail. If you're looking to perform advanced processing of e-mail, check out The Procmail Companion. It provides a great learning tool as well as a handy reference for creating Procmail recipes.

Essential Titles: Look for O'Reilly
Honorable Mention: None

Perl encompasses quite a wide array of possibilities, from Web development to system administration to powerful programs that can do just about anything. Including a review of individual Perl books in this article would be impossible; luckily, there's no need to review individual books on Perl. O'Reilly has long been a leader in Perl publications, which means that not only will they have book on a given area of Perl development, but the book will also be excellent.

However, with so many titles it may be easy to choose an inappropriate title for your level of Perl knowledge. For readers new to Perl, O'Reilly's Learning Perl by Randal L. Schwartz and Tom Phoenix is always a good choice. The Perl Cookbook by Tom Christiansen and Nathan Torkington is another essential title in this area. O'Reilly also has a Perl CD Bookshelf that includes both Learning Perl and Perl Cookbook as well as Perl in a Nutshell by Ellen Siever, et al; Mastering Regular Expressions, Programming Perl by Larry Wall, et al; and Learning Perl Objects, References, and Modules by Randal L. Schwartz and Tom Phoenix on CD-ROM. They also throw in a hard copy of Perl in a Nutshell to round out the package.

Development in Linux
Essential Titles: Addison-Wesley/Prentice Hall PTR books
Honorable Mention: None

Just as O'Reilly enjoys special status in the area of Perl books, Addison-Wesley/Prentice Hall PTR also has special status when it comes to Linux programming titles. Unix Network Programming by W. Richard Stevens, et al, is the classic title in this area and other titles from Addison-Wesley/Prentice Hall PTR keep up the excellent status. Development in Linux is a wide, wide area. Therefore, for this article to give the essential title status to only one or two books would ignore the volumes of other material that may be appropriate for a particular development area. It is for this reason that no honorable mention is given in this category.

Some of the essential titles from Addison-Wesley/Prentice Hall PTR in this area include the aforementioned Unix Network Programming (all volumes); Advanced Unix Programming by Marc J. Rochkind; The C Programming Language by Brian W. Kernighan, et al; Linux Programming by Example by Arnold Robbins; Linux Application Development by Michael K. Johnson and Erik W. Troan; and The Art of Unix Programming by Eric S. Raymond. Other titles also exist in this area and deserve space on the programmer's bookshelf if they aren't already there.

Essential Title: High Performance MySQL by Jeremy D. Zawodny and Derek J. Balling (O'Reilly)
Honorable Mention: The Definitive Guide to MySQL by Michael Kofler (Apress)

MySQL is one of the areas where every publisher seems to have a hat in the ring. There are very few books that truly stand out on the crowded shelf. One such title is High Performance MySQL, which gives the intermediate-to-advanced MySQL user some of the best practices for maintaining MySQL; however, it's not for the beginner. Someone new to MySQL should look for a more basic title of which there are many, including one written by the lead author of this article.

We were unable to come to a consensus on an essential title for a new MySQL administrator. A number of titles exist and each seems to have its own set of flaws. The Definitive Guide to MySQL published by Apress provides a rounded look at MySQL and may be worth a more serious look for the new MySQL administrator, which is why the book garnered an Honorable Mention in this category.

Essential Titles: Apache: The Definitive Guide by Ben Laurie and Peter Laurie (O'Reilly)
Pro Apache by Peter Wainwright (Apress)
Honorable Mention: Apache Cookbook by Ken Coar and Rich Bowen (O'Reilly)

Serving both beginner and intermediate (leaning to advanced) readers alike, Apache: The Definitive Guide is a good book for those looking to implement Apache to serve the Web. This book includes everything from installation to administration to writing Apache modules. The Apress release, Pro Apache, is another excellent title for the new-to-intermediate Apache administrator.

In late 2003, O'Reilly released the Apache Cookbook, providing recipes for common tasks related to Apache Web serving. If you're comfortable with Apache installation and the theory of Apache administration and want to just get the answers, this is a great resource.

The reviewers would like to see a high- performance Apache-type book come forth within the next year from any publisher. The book should include advanced Apache-related tasks and other considerations for using Apache in a demanding environment.

Essential Title: DNS & BIND by Paul Albitz and Cricket Liu (O'Reilly)
Honorable Mention: None

BIND is the most popular DNS server used on the Internet. It makes sense to have a volume that contains not only information on BIND but also on DNS. DNS & BIND provides just that, giving the reader an overview of how DNS works together with how to implement DNS using BIND. The first two chapters of this book should be required reading for anyone performing any computer-related support or administration. O'Reilly also has a cookbook-style title, aptly named DNS & BIND Cookbook by Cricket Liu, for those who already know DNS but just want to make something work in BIND.

Linux Security
Essential Title: None
Honorable Mention: Numerous

Probably the broadest category in this article is the area of Linux security. No single title in this area offers a good source covering everything from intrusion detection to system hardening to secure system administration methods. Some titles try (and fail) to be that elusive one-stop shop for Linux security, but all seem to either lack real-world experience or only scratch the surface of the needs of an administrator. Both of these aspects are key to computer security and it was difficult to find any titles that we could call essential.

Like so many other categories, it seems as if every publisher has a book on Snort for intrusion detection yet no publishers have in-depth coverage of GrSecurity. In other words, you'll learn how to set up Snort but not how to secure the machine from which Snort runs. Some titles insult the reader by including information about the security of e-mail and other nonessential issues that any reader of that title should know already.

All isn't lost, however. Of the titles under consideration, Network Intrusion Detection by Stephen Northcutt and Judy Novak, published by New Riders, stands out as providing an excellent base for an administrator to learn the concepts of intrusion detection. While it doesn't cover intrusion detection software such as Snort, it does belong on the intrusion analyst's bookshelf for the valuable information about common types of attacks that the analyst might see on the network.

The problem is that security is so much more than intrusion detection or disabling unnecessary services in inetd.conf. Titles such as Beyond Fear and Secrets and Lies... by Bruce Schneier give the reader a not-necessarily technical grounding to help consider the risks and costs associated with the field of security. These books have useful information and, thanks to Schneier's writing style, are quite easy reads as well. We consider these titles to be essential reading for anyone trying to secure anything.

The category of Linux and open source security is in need of a good, definitive title on the subject that combines a deep understanding of the concepts of security as well as real-world experience on what works and what doesn't work in the area of Linux security.

Essential Title: The Official Samba-3 HOWTO and Reference Guide by John H. Terpstra and Jelmer R. Vernooij (Prentice Hall PTR)
Honorable Mention: Using Samba by Jay Ts, et al (O'Reilly)

Part of the Bruce Perens Open Source series, The Official Samba-3 HOWTO and Reference Guide is an essential title due to the breadth of information covered in the book. This is not a cookbook with recipe-style solutions to using Samba; it's a definitive volume that will enable the reader to not only create a complete Samba installation but also to understand the workings behind Samba.

Using Samba garners honorable mention in this category for being an easily accessible guide to configuring Samba. Just about everything that an administrator would need to do in order to configure Samba is included in this book.

Inadequate Coverage
You may have noticed some subject areas are completely missing from this article. For some areas there simply isn't any one title that stands out as essential. Rather than suggest a lesser title, we would prefer to leave those areas uncovered in the hopes of finding that essential title for later inclusion.

Essential Title: Open

We expected to find a title that stood out above the rest in the area of PHP development. There are numerous titles that are good, likewise there are at least equally as many bad books on PHP development. If we had to choose a title here, we would lean toward those publishers who have historically been strong in Linux development, Addison-Wesley/Prentice Hall PTR and O'Reilly. Prentice Hall PTR has two titles that are worth a closer look: PHP 5 Power Programming by Andi Gutmans, Stig Bakken, and Derick Rethans; and Core PHP Programming by Leon Atkinson and Zeev Suraski. Both cover PHP 5 as does Beginning PHP 5 and MySQL by W. J. Gilmore, published by Apress. The Apress title arrived too late for us to fully review but it appears promising nonetheless.

Linux Desktop Administration
Essential Title: Open

We were unable to find any titles that covered enterprise administration of the Linux desktop. While there are numerous Linux desktop titles, none includes extensive coverage for an enterprise wishing to use Linux in a large-scale deployment.

Conversion to Linux and OSS from Windows
Essential Title: Open

These titles are just starting to appear. We hope that within the next 12 months books will appear that cover enterprise conversions from Windows to Linux for various applications such as IIS to Apache, Exchange to Sendmail or Postfix, SQL Server to MySQL, and so on.

The Essential Titles 2005
Creating the list of the essential titles was a lengthy and time-consuming task. We look forward to hearing your feedback on our essential titles and improving and expanding upon them for next year.

More Stories By Steve Suehring

Steve Suehring is a technology architect and engineer with a solid background in many areas of computing encompassing both open and closed source systems, he has worked with a variety of companies from small to large, including new and old economy, to help them integrate systems and provide the best use of available technologies. He has also taken a hands-on approach with many projects and frequently leads teams of engineers and developers, and has written magazine articles as well as a book on the MySQL database server. He has also performed technical editing on a number of other titles.

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