Review of BSD Hacks

BSD Hacks: 100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools
Dru Lavigne
O'Reilly & Associates

Reviewed by Nick Christenson,

August 10, 2004

The Open Source BSD operating systems (FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD) have gained a devoted following over the years for their stability, performance, and flexibility. Even though the online documentation of these systems is pretty thorough, compared to its more famous cousin, Linux, print information on this OS family is less common. As a consequence, many techniques for installing and maintaining BSD computers are not as well publicized as one might expect or hope. As part of the O'Reilly "Hacks" series, Dru Lavigne accumulated 100 of the best tips and tricks she could find and has assembled them in BSD Hacks.

Each "hack" in BSD Hacks runs from a few paragraphs to a couple of pages. The hacks are organized into nine chapters that cover many topics, including backups, networking, installation, and upgrades. Few aspects of BSD system administration aren't given at least some attention in this book. Of course, this isn't a complete reference on system administration by any means. Lots tasks which which BSD system administrators ought to be familiar aren't covered here. This book is meant to be a collection of interesting ideas that runs the gamut from the eminently useful to the esoteric. In the process, it manages to provide an overview of many of the interesting aspects specific to BSD.

As FreeBSD is the most popular of the Open Source BSDs, it gets most of the attention. Moreover, much of the attention FreeBSD receives is focused on version 5, which is still considered to be somewhat experimental, at least at the time this review is written and the book was published. This is not to say that NetBSD, OpenBSD and FreeBSD 4.x don't receive coverage. In fact, most of the information in BSD Hacks applies to all OSes in the family. Where it matters, differences between various members of the BSD family are usually pointed out, but on occasion this seems to slip through the cracks.

Most of the hacks are pretty useful, but it's my opinion that some feature inappropriate system administration practices. For example, Hack #13 suggests that aliases to override the behavior of existing system commands be added to the /usr/share/skel/dot.cshrc file. I believe this is a bad idea. If users want to override the default behavior of commands that's their prerogative, but the system administrator should be very hesitant to do this for them. In a similar vein authors of hacks sometimes miss a better solution to the problem they address. Hack #14 would benefit if it included mention of the -c flag to the ps command. While these sorts of problems do crop up occasionally throughout the book, their occurrences are relatively rare.

Overall, BSD Hacks seemed to be aimed at the intermediate BSD administrator or experienced Unix administrator who doesn't have a great deal of specific BSD experience. These are the folks most likely to benefit from the examples in Lavigne's book. It's entirely likely that even experienced BSD administrators will find a trick or two that will be helpful, but much of the material in this book will be more familiar.

As a consequence, I would recommend BSD Hacks to those BSD administrators that are not already experts on that platform. Experts may find some material of value, but the book's overall value will be reduced. I don't recommend BSD Hacks as the primary "how-to" guide for administering the BSD platform, but it will likely prove useful as supplemental material. The book will be of most use to FreeBSD shops, but it contains enough NetBSD and OpenBSD specifics to make it worthwhile for those platforms as well.


Dru Lavigne's book, BSD Hacks contains many useful tips and tricks to assist in the maintenance of BSD systems. The book is aimed at intermediate administrators or experienced administrators without a great deal of specific BSD experience. BSD experts will find most, but probably not all, of these tips to cover familiar ground. Still, BSD Hacks is likely to be a good secondary reference to non-expert BSD admins.

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