Review of Managing Usenet

Managing Usenet
Henry Spencer and Dave Lawrence
O'Reilly & Associates

Reviewed by Nick Christenson,

March 28, 1998

For years, there has been quite a pronounced gap in the literature on the operation of Usenet news services. It's hard to say for sure why this has been the case. Perhaps none of the people qualified to write such a book have had the time to do so. Perhaps the list of people who actually understood the issues thoroughly enough to be comfortable tackling such a project is much shorter than might be expected. Perhaps everyone was just waiting for someone else to do it. Of course it may be a combination of these factors, but at least there finally are books available to help the aspiring Netnews administrator. Of these, the one most eagerly anticipated, a title it has held for longer than the authors probably care to think about, is Managing Usenet by Henry Spencer and Dave Lawrence.

The book begins with an introduction which is complete, although it might go by a little quickly for those who have no or almost no experience with Usenet. A brief background on Usenet is given, terms are defined, and a basic introduction of the requirements for running a news server are presented. The authors are well aware of the fact that this data will be immediately out of date. Fortunately, they do a reasonable job of impressing this upon the readership.

The second chapter covers the preparation for running a news service. This is very useful, as there is much to consider before one installs the software and starts up a feed. The third chapter is on basic operations, those that are not specific to a particular software package. For example, one must consider which control messages will be honored, what the expire policy will be, what hierarchies and distributions will be accepted, etc..

Chapters four through seven cover the acquisition, installation, and basic operation of the C News distribution. This information was detailed enough, but I felt more nostalgic than informed by it. Despite the fact that the C News distribution continues to be maintained (by one of the authors of this book), and that there are still sites that run it, I can't in good conscience recommend to anyone aspiring to set up a new news server that has no experience with any package to install C News. I can believe that in some environments it's not worth the effort to switch to INN from C News, but I really can't imagine someone being better off not running INN or one of its variants.

Chapters eight through ten cover the same ground for INN. The information here is fairly up to date, although INN development is so active right now that published information is immediately obsolete. These chapters are the best I've seen on the issues involved in installing this package.

Chapter ten covers some guidelines on which news reading clients to install and support. This is good advice, but some important clients, Agent for example, aren't covered at all. In my opinion way too much consideration is given to reading news off of a file system on the news server itself rather than via NNTP, but that's just me. Chapter eleven covers network management and related issues. Especially interesting is the chapter on legal issues, at least if the news server under consideration is within the United States, but a number of folks I know with much specific expertise in this area have stated different views than the authors present here. As the authors note, very little of this debate is based on established case law, so I would have liked to see a little more consideration of other viewpoints.

In chapters twelve and thirteen, details specific to running leaf and hub nodes are considered. Chapter fourteen covers gatewaying between Usenet and electronic mail. Chapter fifteen discusses the details of moderating newsgroups. Chapter sixteen covers some thoughts on Usenet namespace.

The next chapter provides a brief history of Usenet. Several accounts of this have been written, but none gives the reader a better glimpse into what actually took place. I especially like the fact that multiple sides of some of Usenet's oldest political battles and flame wars are presented in what I'd consider to be a very balanced manner, while still maintaining the mood of the folks involved in these decision making processes and of Usenet as a whole at the time.

Chapter eighteen dissects the anatomy of a news article, which is a very worthwhile commentary since the RFCs and the implementations have diverged so much, and the book ends with what I think is one of the weaker chapters on the flow of news traffic.

Given the pedigrees of the authors who wrote this book, I had hoped it would be an instant classic, that would be the last word, at least until the protocols are changed and the software is updated, on the topic of Usenet news. Despite the fact that this is certainly far and away the best book on this topic, it's not quite as strong as I had hoped. Certainly, though, every journeyman news admin will benefit greatly from reading this book, and almost all veteran Usenet administrators will want to have it on their shelves.

I have to admit that I was disappointed by several things about the book. First, almost no information is given on tuning Usenet servers. A reasonably busy news server has a very different sort of load placed on it than other types of Internet servers, and while this is acknowledged, even the most widely repeated recommendations on how to maximize a news system's throughput are not mentioned.

Additionally, many of the sections repeat information found elsewhere, and parts of the book don't flow very well. Also, several times the authors present what might be regarded as a general truth, even though there are important exceptions. These are invariably mentioned later, but I'm of the opinion that these caveats should be mentioned up front. For example, in chapter eight they suggest that one might want to renumber the active file after adding each new newsgroup. It's only much later that they mention that the renumber might take several minutes if the active file is large, and that innd won't respond to any requests while this is taking place. On a news server taking a significant fraction of a full feed, if newsgroup addition is not done all at once this is a very bad idea.

Overall, much of the information in the book seems inconsistent to me, as if different chapters were written years apart or without much consideration of what was being written in other chapters. It almost seems as if it was decided that despite the fact that more editing and updating needed to be done, the book was shipped as is to the printer. On the other hand, if the alternative was another year of waiting for it to come out, then shipping it now would have been the lesser of two evils.


Despite the fact that this isn't the ultimate word on the topic, Managing Usenet is the best book available on running a Usenet news server, and is a worthwhile addition to the library of anyone with an interest in this topic. The book has some significant faults, but the information it contains is easily valuable enough to overcome them.