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Unix Advanced Visual QuickPro

Installing and configuring useful services

Unix Advanced Visual QuickPro is a step-by-step guide to configuring the finer points of your Unix machine from file sharing, Web sites, and e-mail through to virus scanning. I talk to the author and long-time friend, Chris Herborth, about the book and the future of Unix and Linux gaming.

Let's get the important questions out of the way first. Are you a bearded sandal wearing Unix guru?

I'd consider myself more of a very advanced user and experienced programmer, although I do have a moustache/goatee (I think that's called a Van Dyke), and I do love to wear sandals when weather permits. I don't look anything like rms or esr. :-)

This is your first book, but not the first time you've been involved in the process. Could you tell us how you got involved in the project?

Years ago I was the technical editor and a contributing writer for The BeOS Bible by Scot Hacker (and me and Henry Bortman), also published by Peachpit Press. Cliff Colby, an acquisitions editor at Peachpit, was hoping to find an advanced "sequel" to their Unix Visual QuickStart book, and contacted Scot to see if he'd like to write it. He's ultra-busy with work and family these days, so he suggested contacting me.

I actually wasn't going to do it (since I'm notoriously busy myself), but my wife convinced me that I'd probably regret it if I didn't do it.

It was also a great excuse to pick up my first Mac OS X system (an iBook that I used to write quite a lot of the book) as well as some extra RAM and disk for my main desktop system. ;-)

Could you tell us about the focus of this book?

Finding a focus for the book was actually the hardest part of the pre-writing phase. Unix is a tremendously broad topic, and I had to intentionally shy away from some of the fun things that wouldn't be appropriate for a sequel to the Unix Visual QuickStart, such as shell programming and version control systems.

Since the Unix Visual QuickStart is an introduction to using Unix, I thought the Unix Advanced Visual QuickPro should take you to the next step, which would be installing and configuring useful services such as Web, FTP, OpenSSH, and database servers. The target audience of the first book is new users who are curious about Unix or need to use it, and the target audience for the Unix Advanced Visual QuickPro is the home "admin" or a junior information technologies worker who wants to pick up some more advanced Unix skills.

Your book shows how adaptable the Unix OS is to different environments. You cover everything from file serving through to e-mail and Web Services. Do you think this is one of the reasons why Unix is now so widely used?

Flexibility, speed, and reliability are hugely important features for servers, and really nice to have for workstations. Unix has dominated the server realm for several decades (!), and it seems to be picking up a lot of desktop use for developers and general Internet users who don't want the hassles of using traditional desktop operating systems.

Of course, Mac OS X is a pure Unix system (with an outstanding GUI running on top), but even Windows has been re-engineered to be more flexible and more reliable.

You make some of the more complex configuration tasks seem incredibly straightforward. Was this one of the goals of the book?

Possibly the biggest goal. Unix's traditionally steep learning curve has always made people leery of diving in, and I wanted to help people get things up and running quickly.

Of course, with a book like this you can barely scratch the surface on important topics like security, but hopefully I've given people enough to get them going, get them interested, and get more information once they've found out they can handle the basic tasks.

Do you think it's true to say that printing is one of the more complicated things to get right under Unix?

Yes, unless you've got one of those hard-to-find line printers. Okay, maybe that's not fair, PostScript printers are pretty easy to get working properly too. Things seem to get hairy when you add in proprietary inkjets, "exotic" connections (like USB instead of parallel or Ethernet), and want to print things that aren't text.

We'll probably get lots of hate mail for this question and its answer, but I'm just reporting on my experiences. I've got a Lexmark Z32 inkjet (strike one) connected through USB (strike two) that tends to work just peachy during Linux installations (prints a nice test page and everything) and then never work again, let alone show up as a connected USB device. Helpful suggestions of "It works fine on my system," didn't really improve the situation.

One of your chapters looks at virus checking, but Unix doesn't strike you as the most likely virus target. Is it something we really need to worry about?

Not really; tools like Clam AV can be very handy if you're acting as a file ser-ver on a network with Windows systems (check your shares for viruses) or if you're handling e-mail (scan the e-mail for viruses as it goes through your system).

A lot of people tend to say that Unixes would have the same viral problems as Windows if they were as popular, but I don't believe that. By default, Windows users tend to work as an administrator (GID=0 or part of the wheel group in Unix speak), which lets their applications run rampant. Almost nobody runs as root all the time on a Unix system.

The book goes to great lengths to look at all levels of Unix admin, covering generic Unix, Linux, BSD, Mac OS X, and the Cygwin distribution for Windows. Which one of these do you use most often, and why?

Mac OS X, because it's running on my oh-so-handy laptop, and Cygwin because my main systems at home and at work are XP (what can I say, I like video games).

I generally dip down into the command-line for development (I'm an EMACS addict, and work on a lot of SGML and XML documents) and for file manipulation and whatnot.

Your background is actually not in the mainstream Unix operating systems, but QNX. What's the difference?

QNX is a true microkernel OS. Things like drivers and filesystems run as regular user-space programs (which makes debugging traditional "kernel services" amazingly easy), and can be started and stopped dynamically. Microkernels have a reputation for being slower (due to the increased number of context switches), but having a very fast and highly optimised scheduler and kernel really helps reduce that overhead.

It's a remarkably elegant system, and QNX 6 implements more POSIX standards than Linux, so it's more Unix-y and more standard.

I actually used QNX in high school, BSD at university, and System V at my first full-time job, before moving to Ottawa and worked for QNX Software Systems. The only Unixes I haven't spent much time with are the workstation flavours (Solaris, Irix, AIX, HP-UX, Ultrix, etc.).

I know from previous discussions that you are a keen gamer. Is this an area of Unix, and Linux in particular, where you'd like to see some wider support from game manufacturers?

There's absolutely no point until proper 3D hardware support is there, and support for all the surround-sound related bells-and-whistles available on modern audio cards.

I realise that some systems have hardware OpenGL support, but I've never experienced this myself, despite having tried with a couple of fairly vanilla systems (that were listed as "supported" for hardware 3D by the distros I was using).

These things need to work out of the box, and easily, or there's no point in nagging developers to support the platform.

That said, publishers, and developers, shouldn't stand in the way of people porting their games to other platforms. Let them sign an NDA or whatever to get the code, and go nuts.

Do you have a favourite restaurant?

Not really; I try to "eat right" due to high cholesterol, so I don't really get to eat anything interesting. ;-) I'm a sucker for Indian and Chinese food though.

I know different authors have different "writing environments." Do you like silence, music, or TV when writing?

Usually music - my Rio Karma got a lot of use while I was working on the book. I have to ignore the TV if it's on or I'll start to watch, unfortunately.

Chris Herborth has been a professional technical writer for 12 years, winning no less than six Society for Technical Communication documentation competition awards. A Unix expert, having used many of the versions available, he's also been a contributor to the Info-ZIP and Python projects and editor for the PNG graphics specifications. An avid gamer, he'd love to be involved in game production, which is why he spends some of his spare time in graphic design and fiction writing. Not content with gaming on his own, Chris is married with a four-year-old son who is already an aspiring video game addict.

More Stories By Martin C. Brown

Martin C. Brown is a former IT director with experience in cross-platform integration. A keen developer, he has produced dynamic sites for blue-chip customers, including HP and Oracle, and is the technical director of Now a freelance writer and consultant, MC, as he is better known, works closely with Microsoft as an SME; has a regular column on both and IBM's DeveloperWorks Grid Computing site; is a core member of the team; and has written books such as XML Processing with Perl, Python and PHP, and the Microsoft IIS 6 Delta Guide.

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