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FreeBSD Mastery: Storage Essentials (IT Mastery) (Volume 4) Paperback – November 28, 2014
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With this addition to his Master series, Lucas takes on FreeBSD storage - a perfectly boring topic where, like the 'sudo' command in his sudo Mastery, you are probably doing it wrong and have for some time. Perhaps you use 'sudo' adequately, but definitely not to its full potential or with a full understanding of *why* you are doing something any given way. FreeBSD Mastery: Storage Essentials covers just about every storage-related you will ever encounter on FreeBSD short of specialty filesystems and ZFS, both of which he tactfully suggests he will address in additional books. (Hopefully followed by back-up strategies!) Lucas covers disk partitioning, encryption and RAID plus everything that gets you to these key points that requite careful decision making. As as bonus he has what just might be the only chapter on S.M.A.R.T. disk monitoring available anywhere plus his strategies for scripting FreeBSD installs from a blank disk on up. I can confirm that any long-term FreeBSD user, myself included, will eventually script their installs and I will argue that the malleability of FreeBSD is one of its greatest strengths.
By focusing on only the fundamentals of FreeBSD storage, Lucas has done exactly the right thing: address one scope of related topics well rather than produce a larger shovel-ware book that tries to cover them all. OpenZFS moves quite quickly and absolutely requires a separate book or he would at best compromise all of the included topics or take so long to produce it that the information would be out-of-date before it ships.
Here-in is what his Mastery series does best: Provide the right amount of coverage of a given topic to stay current and relevant, and allow the reader to learn it well rather than skim around, which I confess I am guilty of doing. The reader cannot stray from the topic when the book focuses on only the one topic *and* is infused with Lucas' informed wit and occasional sardonic humor. In this regard Lucas does the near-impossible of giving a technical book a narrative without resorting to the cartoons found in books "for Dummies" or "Idiots".
Best of all, FreeBSD Mastery: Storage Essentials features Lucas' best cover yet.
If, like me, you administer FreeBSD systems, you know that (like Linux) there is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to filesystems. GEOM, UFS, soft updates, encryption, disklabels -- there is a lot going on here. And if, like me, you're coming from the Linux world your experience won't be directly applicable, and you'll be scaling Mount Learning Curve. Even if you are familiar with the BSDs, there is a lot to take in. Where do you start?
You start here, with Michael W. Lucas' latest book, "FreeBSD Mastery: Storage Essentials". You've heard his name before; he's written "Sudo Mastery" (which I reviewed previously), along with books on PGP/GnuPGP, Cisco Routers and OpenBSD. This book clocks in at 204 pages of goodness, and it's an excellent introduction to managing storage on FreeBSD. From filesystem choice to partition layout to disk encryption, with sidelong glances at ZFS along the way, he does his usual excellent job of laying out the details you need to know without ever veering into dry or boring.
Do you need to know about GEOM? It's in here: Lucas takes your from "What is GEOM, anyway?" (answer: FreeBSD's system of layers for filesytem management) through "How do I set up RAID 10?" through "Here's how to configure things to solve that weird edge-case." Still trying to figure out GUID partitions? I sure as hell was...and then I read Chapter Two. Do you remember disklabels fondly, and wonder whatever happened to them? They're still around, but mainly on embedded systems that still use MBR partitions -- so grab this book if you need to deal with them.
The discussion of SMART disk monitoring is one of the best introductions to this subject I've ever read, and should serve any sysadmin well, no matter what OS they're dealing with; I plan on keeping it around for reference until we no longer use hard drives. RAID is covered, of course, but so are more complex setups -- as well as UFS recovery and repair for when you run into trouble.
Disk encryption gets three chapters (!) full of details on the two methods in FreeBSD, GBDE and GELI. But just as important, Lucas outlines why disk encryption might not be the right choice: recovering data can be difficult or impossible, it might get you unwanted attention from adversaries, and it will not protect you against, say, an adversary who can put a keylogger on your laptop. If it still make sense to encrypt your hard drive, you'll have the knowledge you need to do the job right.
I said that this covers almost everything you need to know, and the big omission here is ZFS. It shows up, but only occasionally and mostly in contrast to other filesystem choices. For example, there's an excellent discussion of why you might want to use FreeBSD's plain UFS filesystem instead of all-singing, all-dancing ZFS. (Answer: modest CPU or RAM, or a need to do things in ways that don't fit in with ZFS, make UFS an excellent choice.) I would have loved to see ZFS covered here -- but honestly, that would be a book of its own, and I look forward to seeing one from Lucas someday; when that day comes, it will be a great companion to this book, and I'll have Christmas gifts for all my fellow sysadmins. (Hopefully it's coming RSN: https://twitter.com/mwlauthor/status/536737271127744512)
One big part of the appeal of this book (and Lucas' writing in general) is that he is clear about the tradeoffs that come with picking one solution over another. He shows you where the sharp edges are, and leaves you well-placed to make the final decision yourself. Whether it's GBDE versus GELI for disk encryption, or what might bite you when enabling soft updates journaling, he makes sure you know what you're getting into. He makes recommendations, but always tells you their limits.
There's also Lucas' usual mastery of writing; well-written explanations with liberal dollops of geek humour that don't distract from the knowledge he's dropping. He's clear, he's thorough, and he's interesting -- and that's an amazing thing to say about a book on filesystems.
Finally, technical review was done by Poul Henning-Kamp; he's a FreeBSD developer who wrote huge parts of the GEOM and GBDE systems mentioned above. That gives me a lot of warm fuzzies about the accuracy of this book.
If you're a FreeBSD (or Linux, or Unix) sysadmin, then you need this book; it has a lot of hard-won knowledge, and will save your butt more than you'll be comfortable admitting. If you've read anything else by Lucas, you also know we need him writing more books. Do the right thing and buy this now.
Vendors take advantage of this. Much of the specialized storage vendors out there are selling you a computer with disks in it – something you can build yourself. You don’t (or at least I hope you don’t) buy a firewall when you can do the same with pf or ipfw; the same goes for disk management.
There’s plenty of coverage of GEOM, GELI, GDBE, and the other technologies specific to FreeBSD. I for one did not know how GEOM worked, with its consumer/producer model – and I imagine it’s complex to dive into when you’ve got a broken machine next to you. If you are administering FreeBSD systems, especially ones that deal with dedicated storage, you will find this useful. He doesn’t go into ZFS, but he does hint at a book on it later…
If you’re not a FreeBSD user, there’s also material that’s common to any BSD – an explanation of disk architecture, of UFS, RAID, and SMART. Knowing what SMART is and does is essential, in my opinion. You may be able to cobble this material together from other sources online, but it’s packaged nicely here, with Lucas’s easy writing style.