By Jeffrey Carl
Boardwatch Magazine was the place to go for Internet Service Provider industry news, opinions and gossip for much of the 1990s. It was founded by the iconoclastic and opinionated Jack Rickard in the commercial Internet’s early days, and by the time I joined it had a niche following but an influential among ISPs, particularly for its annual ranking of Tier 1 ISPs and through the ISPcon tradeshow. Writing and speaking for Boardwatch was one of my fondest memories of the first dot-com age.
Many times, we are faced with difficult questions about installing, maintaining and running an Internet server with a Free Unix OS. And the best answer is, “take a nap.” That’s what I always do.
Anyway … the point is that anyone who tells you they know everything about running a Unix server is lying. The power and configurability of Unix leads to “complexity.” “Complexity” leads to there being “lots of information that you don’t know.” This leads to “needing to look stuff up.” Also, “fear” leads to “anger,” “anger” leads to “hate,” and “hate” leads to “suffering2.”
The first source for answers to any problems with your Freenix of choice is to be found in your man pages, and whatever handbook pages your OS or distribution provides. However, since these often tend to be big on abstractions and short on real-world examples, the web is often your best choice for clear answers to common problems. Since the amount of documentation available on the web is tremendous, in this column I’ll be focusing on free support resources; commercial support will be the topic of a future column.
The following is intended to be a very brief guide to the best free spots on the Web for information. The list is very incomplete; if you have a favorite Freenix resource site you don’t see here, please e-mail me.
Free Linux Support Resources
• Linux Documentation Project (www.linuxdoc.org): The LDP is one of the best things that the Linux community has going for it. The subjects sometimes tend toward the arcane and academic, but you’ll almost certainly find a HOTWO or FAQ guide for any program or service you want to set up for almost any Linux distribution. Its material isn’t always updated to cover the “latest and greatest,” but overall it’s an invaluable resource for how to do almost anything with Linux.
• Linux Distribution Support Sites: Most of the various Linux distributions provide support pages for their distributions. Helpfulness varies from distro to distro, but they generally provide good tips on distribution-specific issues. Among the most notable are Red Hat Linux (www.redhat.com/apps/support/), Linux Mandrake (English homepage at www.linux-mandrake.com/en/), SuSE (www.suse.com/Support/), Debian GNU/Linux (www.debian.org/support), Corel LinuxOS (linux.corel.com/products/linux_os/techsupport/support.htm), Caldera OpenLinux (support.calderasystems.com/caldera), Slackware (www.slackware.com/), LinuxPPC (www.linuxppc.org) and WinLinux 2000(www.winlinux.net/support.html). For a good list of English-language Linux distributions, go to www.linux.org/dist/english.html.
• Linux Journal Help Desk (www2.linuxjournal.com/cgi-bin/frames.pl/help/): The print magazine Linux Journal offers a high-quality collection of links to outside help resources. The links are updated well, and are a good first step to finding answers.
• Linux Fool (www.linuxfool.com): This site features a number of message/discussion boards on topics ranging from X windows to DNS configuration. Some of the forums contain far more questions than answers, but the site has a fairly high signal-to-noise ratio, and is an excellent way to get one-on-one answers. Linux Fool currently has few registered readers/posters as of this writing (about 1000), but hopefully this number will be higher by the time you read this (and a greater number of topics covered).
• Fresh Meat (freshmeat.net): The number-one source for new software and updates. If you’re looking for the newest version of anything, you’ll find it here; more importantly, you can search for a description term (like “statistics”) and find software whose description matches. Not strictly useful for Q & A, but helpful as a launching point for homepages and resources of software packages you might be using.
• Gary’s Encyclopedia (members.aa.net/~swear/pedia/): This site is geared toward Linux, but also has some good information for any Unix user. The “pedia” features a few well-written original tutorials and literally hundreds of links, most of which are very well maintained, and many of the links feature comments about their specific subject or usefulness. Sadly, the page contains a note that as of January 2000, the links will not be actively maintained due to a lack of usage.
• Linux Developer’s Network (lindev.net): Updated several times daily, this site is an excellent source for information on new software packages (especially enterprise apps and code libraries). It also features links and tutorials, and while it doesn’t have the range of informative or thought-provoking reader comments that Slashdot (slashdot.org, the dean of Linux/open source news sites) does, it also doesn’t have the high noise-to-signal ratio.
• Linux Online Help Center (www.linux.org/help/): Hundreds of Linux support links. They aren’t as updated as they might be (when I looked at it, its links to the LDP still hadn’t been moved from the LDP’s old home at UNC), but there’s a lot of helpful material there that’s likely to at least point you in the right direction. The site lists its links with helpful comments, and can point you to resources you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.
• LinuxCare Support (www.linuxcare.com/support/): LinuxCare is a commercial Linux support company, but they maintain a free support database at this site. It’s well-organized, but doesn’t yet have too many answers, and requires you to sign up for free access before you can see the answers to any questions posted.
• LinPeople (www.linpeople.org/): This isn’t technically a web resource, but it can still be quite useful. The Linux Internet Support Cooperative is a groups of sysadmins who devote time to answering Linux questions on their IRC channel. Depending on the time of day, phase of the moon, and who else is logged on, the responses to your questions can range from thoroughly helpful to utter silence; still, one-on-one dialogue is often the best way to understand important Unix problems and concepts. Find LinPeople at irc.openprojects.net, channel #LinPeople.
• Linux Glossary Project (glossary.linux-support.net): The Linux Glossary provides a number of “user-friendly” basic definitions of important terms. It seems to borrow heavily from the Hacker Jargon File and other common sources, but can be useful if you’re looking for a down-to-earth definition of an unfamiliar term.
Free *BSD Support Resources
• FreeBSD Home (www.freebsd.org): FreeBSD’s website should probably be your first destination when looking for an answer. Most important is the documentation on the site, including the FreeBSD Resources for Newbies page (www.freebsd.org/projects/newbies.html), their (slightly outdated) FreeBSD Tutorials page (www.freebsd.org/tutorials/), and the FreeBSD FAQ (www.freebsd.org/FAQ/FAQ.html). Most important, however, is the FreeBSD Handbook (www.freebsd.org/handbook/), which can answer almost any common question you’ll have (note that a copy of the handbook should have been put in your /usr/share/doc directory when you installed the system). FreeBSD’s Support Page (www.freebsd.org/support.html) has a number of resources, including links to mailing lists and newsgroups, a list of regional user groups, links to the GNATS bug-reporting system, and lists of commercial FreeBSD consultants.
• NetBSD Documentation (www.netbsd.org/Documentation/): NetBSD’s support site isn’t as in-depth as some others, but it’s an admirable effort, considering the number of platforms that it’s ported to. The documentation available is not as in-depth as for some other OSes, but it is very well organized (my personal documentation test is how quick you can find out how to boot into single-user mode). Overall, very helpful to NetBSD users, especially new sysadmins trying to find out how to perform normal tasks.
• OpenBSD Home (www.openbsd.org): OpenBSD’s site provides several high-quality resources for its users, including the OpenBSD FAQ (www.openbsd.org/faq/) a Manual Page Search feature (www.openbsd.org/cgi-bin/man.cgi) and a listing of OpenBSD Mailing Lists (www.openbsd.org/mail.html).
• Daemon News / “Help, I’ve Fallen” (www.daemonnews.org, www.daemonnews.org/[YYYYMM]/answerman.html): Daemon News is a monthly e-zine covering all sorts of cool *BSD-related topics, including descriptions of new software and “how-to” articles. If you run any BSD, it’s definitely worth a look every month or so.
The “Help, I’ve Fallen” column is an absolute must for newer *BSD administrators. It might not cover your more “out there” questions, but a lot of common problems (from setting up modems to setting up printers) have a very understandable explanation here. Each column includes a listing of all of the previous questions answered, so it’s best to look at the most recent column first.
• Comprehensive Guide to FreeBSD (www.vmunix.com/fbsd-book/): Covers everything from installation (Chapter 2) to setting up PPP with FreeBSD (Chapter 8). Some of the material is outdated (referring to FreeBSD 2.x), but most of it is very applicable. It’s short on theoretical grounding and explanations, but very good for real world “quick-and-dirty” explanations on almost any problem to be found with FreeBSD, and much of the information can be applied to other BSDs.
• The FreeBSD Diary (www.freebsddiary.org/): The “diary” of a FreeBSD sysadmin, focusing heavily on links to topics regarding Internet servers (like Apache and e-mail). Not the easiest to search for answers, but featuring links to a lot of content you won’t find elsewhere (if you can find it here).
• FreeBSD “How-To”s for the Lazy and Hopeless (flag.blackened.net/freebsd/): Some of the links on this site are outdated, but most provide useful information. While this is long on step-by-step intros and short on explanations, it can provide links to quick info (on things from TCP Wrappers to PnP audio gear drivers) if that’s what you’re looking for.
• FreeBSD Rocks! (www.freebsdrocks.com/): Not updated as frequently as some other sites, but still a good choice when you’re looking for FreeBSD news or support forums.
Free General Unix Support Resources
• Geocrawler (www.geocrawler.com/): Geocrawler is a repository of archives of more than a hundred mailing lists, on topics ranging from Linux distributions to *BSD to Apache, PHP and Perl. Each mailing list has a search interface, making the site an invaluable resource for those searching for new topics or those not well-documented in existing HOW-TOs or FAQs.
• Root Prompt (rootprompt.org/): Provides a number of informative articles and tips on various *nixes. Not much original content, but provides an excellent (and well-updated) collection of links to papers and FAQ/HOWTOs on everything from configuring Sendmail to recycling IP addresses.
• Unix Help for Users (www.geek-girl.com/Unixhelp/): This site provides basic Unix answers and questions. If a question seems to simple to be answered on one of the more platform-specific sites, it’s probably here.
• Unix Guru Universe (www.ugu.com): UGU provides a neat search interface with a number of links to outside information on almost any Unix you can think of. While it’s light on “in-house” material, it can find things in nooks and crannies that other sites don’t have.
In a future column, we’ll look at commercial support offerings online. Thanks for reading, and remember – if you’ve had half as much fun reading this as I’ve had writing it, I’ve had twice as much fun as you.
 My sincerest apologies to anyone offended by this, but I just had to include a John Dvorak joke.
2 The Force for Dummies, Master Yoda, Jedi Press.