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Book Review

Copyright (C) 2002 by Steve Litt, All rights reserved. Material provided as-is, use at your own risk. 

Linux in Small Business: A Practical User's Guide -- by John P. Lathrop
308 pages, Paper-perfect bound, ISBN 1-893115-46-1, available from a! Apress ( and your local bookstore.

Fascinating! When I learned Linux, I learned the command line and the internals first, and only later did I learn the applications necessary to run my business. As a result, I used Linux for 2.5 years before switching my business to Linux. That's OK for a geek, but for a business person there has to be a better way.

John P. Lathrop has mapped out that better way in his book, "Linux in Small Business: A Practical User's Guide". Lathrop's chapter 1 is an introductory chapter quickly outlines Linux benefits for the small business person, Linux terminology, and the state of Linux today.

Chapter 2 is the installation chapter, where it's made clear that the book's audience is the business person. It briefly discusses various Linux distributions and then gives detailed instructions on installing Red Hat Linux 7.2. The geek in me is revolted that Lathrop ignores Mandrake, Debian, Caldera, Bear Ops, and tens of other fine distributions. But my small business side says "it's about time somebody did this". By concentrating on a single version of a single Linux distribution Lathrop can give the detail and hand holding necessary to walk a non-geek through the installation process. The installation instructions are clear and complete, and include many screenshots to prevent the business person from getting lost.

Chapter 3 is an introduction to Linux and the Linux desktop -- another example of Lathrop's creative organization devoted to his exact target audience. The business person wants to know how to use the desktop (the graphic user interface of Linux), and why Linux is better than Windows and Mac. This chapter accomplishes this flawlessly. It's a beefy chapter, leading the reader through graphical configuration utilities, accessing CD's and floppies (a sticking point for ex Windows users), the menu system, various applets, the Nautilus file manager, and the Mozilla browser. By the time the user is finished with Chapter 3, he or she can operate Linux quite well in novice user mode. Given that many Windows business users never get past the novice stage, this is quite valuable. Once again, the author details a single tool for each task, and covers it deeply.

Chapter 4 provides detailed instructions for the sometimes difficult task of connecting a Linux computer to the Internet. He covers all possible combinations of dialup, DSL, cable, static and dynamic IP addresses, and PPPoE. This chapter contains a welcome level of handholding for the business person wanting to surf the 'net without plumbing the depths of Linux Internet connectivity. By the time the reader finishes chapter 4, he or she is fairly accomplished at using Linux as a desktop machine. But businesses need servers too...

Chapter 5 instructs the reader in setting up a network based on a Linux server, and both Windows and Linux workstations. It describes various configurations, including a DNS server. Chapter 6 continues the network discussion with Linux as a server for the Internet, email, file/print server (Samba), a database server, and an application server. Chapter 7 drills down to the details of Internet web and email serving.

Chapter 8 drills down to the details of advanced desktop/workstation usage, including the StarOffice office suite. By the time you finish this chapter you're almost to the point of being a power user.

Finally, chapters 9 and 10 detail system management and command line operations. Given the audience of this book, those chapters are reference rather than tutorial. There are also appendices on making a boot disk, configuration files, and Dynamic DNS (even geeks consider this a rather complex subject). The bottom line is that the last two chapters and the appendices mean this book can transition the reader past userhood and into administration.


This is the perfect book for the small business person considering Linux. It has just the right mix of technical advice and discussion of the economic benefits of Linux. Lathrop has organized the book from easiest to hardest for the intended audience. Repeatedly, he chooses what he considers the best tool or application for a purpose, and does not discuss the others. While this would be heresy to a geek, the business person appreciates the linear simplicity, and the fact that a 300 page book can go into deep details where necessary.

The small business reader needs to know that this book is  primarily a learning tool -- and a great learning tool at that. Like all learning tools it will be outgrown. Sooner or later the business person will discover that LyX software writes books better than StarOffice, or that the IceWM desktop manager is much more efficient than Gnome or KDE. But by that time this book will have done its job admirably. As an analogy, consider learning to drive. Ut;s best to learn to drive with an automatic transmission, so that you can learn steering and braking without shifting and clutching getting in the way. Once you can drive smoothly, you might opt for the fun and efficiency of a stick shift.

The bottom line is that if you operate a small business, and if you're looking for an economical and reliable alternative to Microsoft Windows, you need to read this book.

Steve Litt

Steve Litt is a software developer, technical writer, webmaster of Troubleshooters.Com, and the author of Troubleshooting Techniques of the Successful Technologist and Rapid Learning: Secret Weapon of the Successful Technologist.

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