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Linux Clustering: Building and Maintaining Linux Clusters

By Charles Bookman. Indianapolis: New Riders, 2003. xv + 265 pages.

A colleague and I recently discussed how one of New Riders’s most highly regarded books—Paul DuBois’s MySQL—corresponds to one of O’Reilly’s worst duds: MySQL & mSQL. Charles Bookman’s Linux Clustering does nothing to improve New Riders’s reputation.

The book is divided into eleven chapters, unevenly distributed among three sections: an overview of clustering for Linux, building clusters, and maintaining clusters. Four appendices provide brief information about online clustering resources, options for RedHat’s “Kickstart,” options for DHCP, and information on “Condor Class Machine Attributes.”

Bookman provides a central piece of wisdom that no system administrator should ignore: redundancy. In the case of high availability clusters, parts redundancy is the name of the game, but one should not forget the human component; no administrator should be caught with only a cell phone—keep a pager just in case. However, in a post-modern turn that might seem brilliant if it were applied in a work of fiction rather than a technical book, the author seems to apply the concept of redundancy to the text itself.

That the book began not as a book but rather as a collection of talks or presentations, or some other smaller format, is evidenced by the repetition of information between chapters and sections. Such nearly poetic repetitions also occur within sentences and paragraphs (e.g. “nightly backups each night” on page 25).

An editor never looked at Linux Clustering; the book had two “technical reviewers” but their contributions didn’t include fixing mangled syntax and strained “style.” On page 14 in the second paragraph a large segment of a sentence from the previous page is pasted into another sentence, resulting in a nonsensical block of text. The number of hyphenation, syntax, word choice, and subject-verb agreement errors is atrocious and makes the book difficult to read.

Some of the misinformation in the text appears to be unintentional (but ignorance is no excuse for a UNIX systems administrator); some is due to the fact that the author deals only with old (2.2) kernels, old versions of journeling filesystems, and old distributions; and yet other misinformation is the result of misplaced attempts at humor (such as stating that GNU stands for the Gateway Naming Utility; one can only hope that this was intended to be funny). Other jokes often misfire, but do point to the intended audience (consider, for example, the section heading “Space: The Final Frontier”).

In the Introduction the author indicates that the book should be read by “Linux enthusiasts and users who want to get a Linux cluster up and running with the least amount of fuss.” The organization of the book will not, however, aid this enterprise, for there is little “how to” information provided, but rather a great deal of background information on compiling kernels, various types of journeling file systems, and RedHat’s Kickstart (perhaps inappropriate considering that the book specifically states that basic information will not be covered). Another section or two deal with basic networking and security. Various types of clusters are discussed, as are a few of the types of clustering software (e.g. Condor and Mosix) available.

The book, however, is clearly intended for administrators of clustering systems; a special emphasis is high availability and load balancing clusters. Parallel computing and the types of applications end users would wish to run receive far too little discussion.

Almost all technical books regurgitate the contents of freely available FAQs and HOWTOs to some degree, yet the good ones summarize the relevant points, make dry documentation more accessible, and give the reader some new insights. Because Bookman’s Linux Clustering suffers from heinous spelling, grammar, and style errors; deals primarily with outdated software; contributes little new to the discussion; and doesn’t speak to non-admins, I can only recommend that those interested in Linux clustering stick to online FAQs and HOWTOs; O’Reilly’s offering on the topic was no more respectable.