Interview with Mark G. Sobell, author of “A Practical Guide to Red Hat Linux 8”

Mark G. Sobell is the author of best-selling UNIX and Linux books: “A Practical Guide to the UNIX System”, “UNIX System V: A Practical Guide”, “A Practical Guide to Linux” and “A Practical Guide to Red Hat Linux 8“.

He has more than twenty years of experience working with UNIX and Linux and is president of Sobell Associates Inc., a consulting firm that designs and builds custom software applications, designs and writes documentation, and provides UNIX and Linux training and support.

How long have you been working with Linux, and how did you get interested in it?

You really need to ask about UNIX to start with because I got interested in Linux because I was involved with UNIX. In the late ’70s (we really don’t need four digits yet, do we?) I was working for a microprocessor company when their genius programmer decided to implement a UNIX-like operating system on a Z-80 with each process assigned to a 64K (yes, really) bank of memory. I documented the OS and it was easy from there. Several companies put various UNIXs on microprocessor systems and I wrote my first book on UNIX in 1982. It was not a great leap from UNIX to Linux when it appeared; I’ve been working with Linux since just before 1.0.

You are the author of several books – out of all of your writing ideas how do you decide which ones to develop further?

I work on topics that I’ve found interesting or that I think people need to know about. My earlier UNIX books had a chapter on nroff/troff because I was fascinated with the program. I wrote my second UNIX book in troff using vi to edit the files. Because none of the standard macro packages gave me what I wanted, I wrote my own macro package.

I still use vi and have a chapter on vim in the Linux books. But I cannot have a chapter on everything, so I cover topics to a depth that I consider sufficient and present the reader with resources in case they want to go further.

What was it like writing “A Practical Guide to Red Hat Linux 8“? How long did it take? Any major difficulties?

The major difficulty was that the code kept changing under me. I rewrote the GNOME chapter three times. It seemed as though when I took the time to work on one part of the book, another would go out of date. The book took about 18 months to complete and three months to produce. My love of typesetting (and control) causes me to do all of the production work on the book myself. Of course there are copyeditors and such. And I was blessed with a very talented and helpful production manager at AW. Anyone want to help on the illustrations next time around?

What’s your take on the adoption of Linux in the enterprise? Do you think it will give a boost to security?

Of course Linux boosts security. Take a proprietary OS that only a few people get to look at versus an open source OS that thousands of people review and update regularly. Which will have fewer bugs and security holes? If you are running a company and can use an OS whose source code you cannot look at or one that you can have your programmers review and modify as appropriate, which are you going to use? They used to say, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM,” but times have changed and IBM is not it anymore. So it goes with MS. Not that I think they are going out of business tomorrow. IBM is still a strong competitor. But it is interesting to see that where IBM once jumped into bed with MS, they are taking a much different route with Linux. You can buy Linux from multiple vendors on an IBM box.

In your opinion, where does Linux need the most software development at the moment?

That depends on where you want Linux to go. Linux is doing well in the server arena. I guess the big question is when/if Linux will be ready for the desktop market. Not just you and me, but corporate HQ. GNOME and KDE are just about ready for prime time, and there are a number of good office packages out there. But there is a world using MS products and formats. To win in this arena Linux must connect to these systems and work with data from these systems flawlessly. For example, when you talk about running Word under Linux or working with Word files using a Linux word processor, you must mean a very recent version of Word and include all of the format features. I admit I have not worked in this area for a while, but it always seemed to me that there was a feature missing when I imported a MS document and when I exported a MS document it never looked quite right when it was opened again under Windows. That will not cut it.

Great strides have been made in the area of MS compatibility and interoperability and Linux is starting to appear on more desktops in more offices, but I think we still have a way to go.

What advice would you give to new Linux users?

a. Do not run as root/Superuser except when you absolutely must, and go back to being a regular user as soon as possible.
b. Experiment (except when you are running as Superuser). Play with the system! Do not be afraid to try things on the system. Experimenting is the best way to learn.
c. Know where you can get help. There are some places on your system (info and man pages). Help is also available with your distribution (Red Hat provides a documentation CD) and on the Internet via search engines and newsgroups. Your last resort should be posting to a newsgroup. Look through newsgroup archives. Doubtless, someone has already answered your question.
d. Have fun! If you’re not having fun, hang it up.

What are your plans for the future? Any exciting new projects?

I want to do more work on Web-based and online documentation. I think these areas hold the key to turning books into much more useful documents. Aside from the obvious advantage of being able to keep the material up-to-date, I believe that the material can be accessed more easily. An index is useful but it can be frustrating; being able to do a full text search on multiple documents could be more fruitful. In my books I suggest that the user sit in front of a computer and try the examples as s/he reads the book. How much nicer to have the examples come alive as you read them.