November 15, 2004

Review: "Knoppix Hacks"

Author: James Pryor

The Knoppix LiveCD GNU/Linux distribution is a valuable tool for such tasks as Web browsing, system administration, enthusiast experimentation and tinkering, and free software advocacy. "Knoppix Hacks," written by Kyle Rankin and published by O'Reilly, is a companion book to Knoppix that includes a CD of Knoppix 3.4 2004-05-17. It's a fine complement to a useful distribution.

"Knoppix Hacks" is a collection of activities that involve many of the programs and applications that make up Knoppix. These hacks can be a neat project, a set of tips and tricks, or a creative recipe that simplifies what was once a difficult task. The book starts out with simple tasks, and as the book progresses, the hacks tend to require more time, technical prowess, and resources from the reader.

A book titled "Knoppix Hacks" might appear to have an intended audience of computer gurus with years of GNU/Linux experience, but that's not how this book is written. Each hack is prefaced with an introduction and a "hack thermometer" that indicates the difficulty of the hack. In the details of each hack, Rankin provides plenty of screenshots and textual command output, which helps readers successfully complete the tasks. These features, combined with Rankin's friendly writing style, broaden the intended audience from sysadmin or guru to power-user or hobbyist experimenter.

The hacks cover a wide range of topics, from Web browsing to data forensics and even making your own custom Knoppix CD. Some examples: Hack #39 -- Browse Windows Shares -- shows how Knoppix can browse a Windows SMB LAN with KDE's Konqueror. Hack #50 -- Test Hardware Compatibility -- has great tips for finding out the details of a PC's components without having to open the case and inspect it. Hack #25 -- Network Boot Knoppix -- turns Knoppix into a terminal server, with one PC booting off the Knoppix CD and a second booting from its network card, using the Knoppix CD from the first PC.

Five months ago, I discovered on my own what is now the centerpiece of Hack #55 -- Find Lost Partitions. At my job, a SUSE Linux server crashed and would not boot because it lost the partition table and master boot record. After much frustration and Googling, I used gpart with Knoppix to recover the partition table and brought the server online. If "Knoppix Hacks" had been available at the time of the incident, it would have helped me minimize system downtime.

I have two complaints with "Knoppix Hacks." The first obvious complaint is that newer releases of Knoppix will eventually make "Knoppix Hacks" outdated, and in fact the CD included with the book is already several point releases behind the most current version of Knoppix available for download. Second, seasoned Knoppix users will probably see "Knoppix Hacks" more as a reference book and less as a hands-on HOWTO guide. Experienced users have probably read a Knoppix HOWTO and found the forums and FAQs. This is not to say that "Knoppix Hacks" is simply a printed and bound aggregation of HOWTOs and posts from Web forums. Rankin has written a high-quality guide book that both those with Knoppix experience and those without can appreciate.

Many techies and hackers recognize that Knoppix is a great tool and have added it to their toolset. "Knoppix Hacks" is a wonderful complement to Knoppix. I recommend it to both experienced sysadmins and newbie hackers.

Knoppix Hacks
100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools
By Kyle Rankin
First edition October 2004
336 pages
Published by O'Reilly Media Inc.
ISBN: 0-596-00787-6

Pryor is a system administrator with Computer Associates Intl. and has been a GNU/Linux fan since 1996.

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