Linux DNS Server Administration book review

Author: Craig Hunt ISBN: 0782127363 Publisher: Sybex

DNS is one of the elite few subjects that inspire newbie admins to break out in a cold sweat at the merest mention of its name, along with sendmail it has the stigma of being a critical system allowing no down time making it difficult to learn or tinker with and having documentation that is far over shadowed by an O’Reilly book. When i came to need a good tutorial on DNS i went to the Linux Documentation project and skimmed over the introductions provided there and then prepared to shell out for the newest edition of the rather unfriendly cricket book after being left hungry for more in-depth coverage. While walking through Borders looking for a copy of the cricket book i noticed a section of ugly looking books (Not quite Wrox ugly though…) that all had the “Linux Library” tag on them and spotted the name of the author of a number of them, Craig Hunt.

The authors name (Craig Hunt) may sound familiar to experienced Linux Admins as the author of Linux Network Servers 24seven, a book that covers the standard setup and deployment of all the services a SOHO or larger environment could need on a Linux box. I’d read through the DNS section in that book and been impressed enough at the clear explanations to get Hunts Linux DNS Server Administration book instead of the one I’d gone out for, and i think it was a good call.

The book is divided in to four main parts with an appendix covering four smaller topics. The fours parts cover:

Part 1 How Things Work
Part 2 Essential Configuration
Part 3 Advanced Configurations
Part 4 Maintaining a Healthy System

Part one is the usual set of chapters that come with almost every book that covers an application of a network protocol, the history behind its development, how the protocol works and how to get the software. This section covers all the bases that you’d expect and has enough sample program output that you should be able to map the given examples to real life output from your own servers.

The strangest part of this section is in chapter three where the two topics the chapter cover feel like they are out of sequence, the control tool (ndc) is covered before the install of the actual software. It may just be me but i would have preferred to be guided through a basic install first and then shown how it can be controlled rather than just being given theory.

The second part is both the meat of the book and where most people will make the mistake of leaving the book. The problem is the book makes things seem too easy with plenty of well explained examples, sample files and descriptions of the flows that just encourage you to go and flaunt your new found skills before you tackle the later sections including the all important security section.

Chapter four is the first in the second part of the book and covers the resolv.conf, host.conf and nsswitch.conf files and shows an in-depth coverage of the resolv.conf that I’ve yet to see matched elsewhere. The smaller sections in the same chapter on host and nsswitch conf files show you how to make the most of a Linux box that doesn’t run its own named.

Chapters five and six are where it all comes together, setting up slave, caching and master servers are all given enough coverage and explanation to allow someone who’s only previous DNS experience has only been following this book to set up a fully functional server that’s ready for internal deployment. Add one of the better explanations of reverse look up records that I’ve seen and this section alone made the book worth the cover price to me.

The third section helps to round out the readers knowledge and helps the admin move from basic skills to being able to do some of the more “deep voodoo” tasks such as delegating reverse domains, adding the lesser known records that allow easier gathering of the human admins and even showing where the ever more popular Dynamic DNS is heading (And Microsoft likes DDNS so its not going away!)

Although the book is on Linux a couple of pages on Windows based clients and the newer DNS developments would have been nice, interoperability is not always near the top of the list of Microsoft and the other DNS server’s authors. Chapter 9 is one of the few that i didn’t get that much out of, i already knew most of the basics from how the Microsoft version handles it (Badly if it involves NT and 2K) and the coverage of the Linux version seems a little out of date as the capabilities were only at an early stage when the book went to press.

The fourth section is more of a mop up and covers the topics that didn’t really fit elsewhere in the book but the admin should be aware of to round out his toolkit. Chapters on securing both bind and the box its on, testing that the config does what you think it does and how to read your log files all tie in better than you’d think at first glance and help to reinforce an understanding of how every thing fits together and effects each other.

The appendixes are more reference based in nature and include a brief introduction of Bind 9 (This is the most time ravaged section of the book), a command reference of the options allowed in named.conf, a listing of the more obscure DNS record types and a section on NIS which i have to admit to skipping over.

What’s wrong with it? The book is actually difficult to find fault with in general, its not pitched at the same Guru level people that would buy the bat or cricket books and use them as printed man pages only for reference and so uses clearer more wordy examples than some people may like but the added explanations were a feature from my angle (I’ve never had to set up a public BIND server before.)

Chapter nine could do with a bit of an update in any second edition that gets released. The Linux DDNS software has matured enough to warrant some more attention and a little bit on interoperability between Linux and Windows would be the icing on the cake.

Something that isn’t really a problem but more of a wish-list is a chapter or appendix on a small number of case studies. A small number of complete DNS set ups of maybe four or five hosts with the full configs of the slave and master servers along with why those designs were chosen over the other possibilities would have made the book more useful, war stories from the trenches and why the common mistakes are made would have helped reinforce the good practices that the book gives. Then again the authors going to need to pull a few tricks like that to get people to buy a second edition as this ones going to take some effort to top.

The only thing stopping me from recommending this as a onestop DNS solutions bok is its age, the verison of Bind the book is based upon is starting to look dated as people move to Bind 9. The background, testing and throey chapters make this an excellent starting bookm but if you plan on putting up a secure DNS server (And if not why not?) be prepaired to read some documentation from more up todate sources afterwards.

Total rating? I liked this book, while working through it i managed to set up a fully working master server on my laptop (VMWare is a good thing!) that my virtual machines had no trouble with using without stumbling over any of the more obvious mistakes or requiring any other howtos or books.

I’d give it an 8 out of ten and I’m going out to buy his sendmail book tomorrow.