Learn Solaris UNIX or Linux Today, The Real Way

You know, I get a lot of traffic on this site that is specifically related to the Solaris UNIX operating system.  I have guides posted about setting up disks in SVM, and replacing failed disks, and more, lots of stuff about Solaris UNIX.  I have stuff about Linux and Windows too, but it seems that Solaris is what people are looking for when they hit my site.  So, I thought I would post a little rant here and give some tips on improving your life with Solaris and Linux as well.  I am going to share some fundamental truths about Solaris and Linux, the world in which you will find them, and more.  So, let us begin …

First and foremost, you cannot learn a wonderful OS like Solaris or Linux unless you have it in front of you where you can get on a command line and get some stuff done.  It requires you typing at that console, learning your way around, breaking things, and then fixing it after you broke it.  Spend some time learning how to set something up and how to do manage and change it, before you tear it all down and do it again.  You have to get to know the OS like it’s a living breathing entity, and this may sound funny to you, but once you get to a certain level with your servers, you will be able to feel or know if something is wrong, just by the way the server responds to you at the command line.  It’s OK if you don’t believe me and if you laugh, I probably wouldn’t have believed it either until I spent a year or two managing a few hundred Solaris servers all by myself, all SPARC systems, the best on the planet.  I HAD to spend that kind of time at the console with my servers just to keep up, and it was eerie how they would almost tell me before there was a problem.  Maybe it is something you have to just plain experience for yourself.  I guess if you looked at it logically, you could say that once you got used to say, the response time of a server on the command line, if that response time were suddenly slower, that would be something you would notice and would prompt you to check and see if something was wrong.

The main point though, is that you need a box, a server that you can work on or play with, call it what you will.  Ideally, you need one at home.  Yes, I said at home.  Away from the work life, away from the boss yelling at you and the phone ringing and all that.  If your home life is just as hectic with a wife and screaming kids, then you have got to find a place where you can get some time in with your server, and no, dinking around on a server at work won’t cut it, you need a box that you can tear down and rebuild, that you can break bad and fix good, not something you are going to get in trouble at work over when it’s not running at 0800 hours.

So, what to do?  This is where eBay is your friend.  Go to eBay and search for some Sparc 5’s or something similar, do some Googling and reading on the net about what are good scavenge servers to look for at auctions and such.  Just make certain that it is a SPARC server, NOT Intel.  I know you can download the Intel Solaris for free, and install it in VMware, VirtualBox or on an old PC, but that’s just not the same.  SPARC servers are different, and you need to experience them.  Here is one of the fundamental truths I talked about, pretty much any Enterprise level IT job you get doing anything with Solaris, especially with a large footprint, will be SPARC based.  SPARC is what brings the real power to the table, not Intel.  So you need to know SPARC to land those high end and high paying jobs.  If you are already familiar with Linux, good, your learning curve just went down, but they are still different and you still have to learn what makes Solaris and SPARC different from Linux and Intel.

Now, if you aren’t targeting Solaris UNIX specifically, but are still wanting to get super ninja like with Linux, the same rules apply.  You need to get a Linux box that you can work with, tear down and rebuild, break and fix, all the same.  The big difference is that here you don’t have the major hardware hurdle, here you can use VMware or VirtualBox or that PC sitting in the corner not doing anything else.  The important thing is to get a machine running the flavor of Linux that you like*, that you have full access to!  This means you can do whatever you like with it.  While I don’t mean bash it with a lawn mower blade, I mean OS installs, OS re-installs, kernel-builds, breaking and fixing, whatever it takes.  Once you have this box, and this is important, set a goal and keep to it.  Here is a good one, build a server that would run an ISP all on one box, and don’t stop until you have it built and working.  Again, I feel like I have to clarify, I don’t mean don’t stop as in forget to eat, drink and hit the head, but get it done before you start another Linux project.  It’s easy to say “Well, I’ll come back to that later” and move on to something else.  You know what though?  You never come back!  So stick with it and get it done before you do something else.  Keep in mind too, when doing something like this, like setting up and ISP on one server, don’t sit there and tell me that there’s no way one server can run an ISP and all that, you are just making excuses, we aren’t really running an ISP, this is just to get you familiar with setting up things like Apache, PHP, MySQL, bind, sendmail, and everything else that goes into it.  Before you flame on, yes I said sendmail.  You can use postfix or qmail or whatever you want on your mail server, but it is invaluable experience to learn how to setup and run sendmail.  Not just for the sendmail experience, but for what it will teach you about mail in general.  Yes it’s hard, that’s one reason why I say it’s necessary, besides if it were easy everyone would do it.  You could make a career out of sendmail if you got good enough with it and learned enough about it.  To the right company, you would be worth your weight in gold.

Now, once you have that down try some other projects like building a web server for multi-domain hosting along with self signed SSL certs, as if you were going into the web hosting business.  Although you can do this as part of the ISP build.  Same thing with email, setup a multi-domain email hosting system if you didn’t already do it like that during ISP setup.  Sendmail is painfully easy to do multi-domain email hosting with.  Try setting up a server and hardening it to attack, this should probably be the first thing anyway, in today’s world of hackers, crackers, script kiddy’s and all the rest, boxes need to be secured before they are opened up to the net.

Let’s recap, get your software together (Solaris, Linux, etc) and get the proper hardware together.  Whether that’s going to be an old PC to install Linux on, or a SPARC box from eBay or an auction, or maybe VMware or VirtualBox to run your Linux server in a virtual environment.  Then a place to work where you can concentrate on what you are doing for hours at a stretch without interruption.  That means no TV, preferably no phone or radio/music player either.  You need to be able to focus and concentrate on what you are doing, and only on what you are doing while you work.  This will make the time you spend working much more productive, so much so that to you it will seem unbelievable.  If you spend just three hours working and studying hard on your server or servers (more are better, network them all together!) without any interruptions just a constant flow of thought about what you are doing, it will be like working 10 or 15 hours in the same situation but with the TV going.  Just that one constant distraction kills your retention of information, as well as your steady progress in the first place.  So in the end, get your stuff together and put some time in on that console.  Learn to do some stuff, build some stuff, fix some stuff and the rest will fall into place.  You can do it, you can learn it, anyone can if they want to bad enough, keep working on it!  Sometimes along the way, be sure to drop us a line and let us know how it’s going, we’d love to hear from you.


*A note about installing the flavor of Linux that you like as I mention in the article.  While it is true that you can install any version you want and should be able to get by, there are about a billion and a half different Linux releases or distributions (distro’s for short) out there.  So, let me make a couple of suggestions for a place to start … here we go:

  • CentOS – Which stands for Community enterprise Operating System if I remember correctly.  This is a complete rebuild of Red Hat Enterprise from Red Hat’s source releases.  This probably infuriates Red Hat, but it does prove that Red Hat is playing the game right.  Since with the Linux license, you have to release the source code of your product along with the product itself, they must be doing it right if someone can come along and stitch it back together and make their product for free.  Now, why would you want it, well Red Hat is the most commercially acceptable release of Linux out there bar none.  I have worked with many organizations, including the Federal Government that ONLY allow Red Hat Enterprise Linux within their data center walls.  This means that you can install CentOS and have the full Red Hat Enterprise Linux at your finger tips without having to spend a few hundred or a few thousand bucks on licenses.  It’s a good stable Linux release too (both of them ;p) with loooong release schedules and very long support plans.  If you didn’t know already, Red Hat pretty much blazed the Linux trail years ago, and so lots of people have stuck with it.  For the record too, Fedora Core is NOT THE SAME!  It’s also not a good distro to learn on in my opinion because this is the distro that Red Hat uses to test their bleeding edge technology, plus they have a very short release and support rate.
  • Next on the list would be SuSE Linux, now by Novell.  I know, I know, we don’t hear much about this one (at least I don’t anyway).  However, since Novell bought out the original company and then signed a pact with the devil, er … I mean Microsoft, that has opened some data center doors to this distro.  I have seen SuSE Linux on a few data centers approved software lists, but I have yet to see it deployed even once.  They all run Red Hat, see above.
  • Last but not least is my personal favorite, a distro that is a workhorse.  It’s not one you’ll find in Fed data centers, or in some of the high end data centers either, the ones that latch onto Red Hat because paid support contracts make them feel better at night.  This distro however is solid, both as a server and as a desktop, it also is the back end or backbone of many other distributions including one of the fastest growing and most popular right now, Ubuntu Linux.  This one distro to rule them all is Debian Linux, and I follow in my own words.  I use Debian Linux for my desktop (among others, I like to play around with different distros), as well as for my servers like the one serving this website right here.  Debian has a long release cycle and a long support cycle, and it is run and controlled by a community, not a commercial empire with a Board of Directors and Investors to satisfy.  Yes they get lots of help and donations from companies, but that’s different.  Debian is an amazing release of Linux, and one of the best ones I can recommend using.  If you want one a bit more friendly try Ubuntu Linux, it’s Debian under the hood, but the Ubuntu team has added lots of things to make life easier for newer users that don’t have as much console time under their belt yet.  Go get ’em, and enjoy.  You will too, trust me!

One thought on “Learn Solaris UNIX or Linux Today, The Real Way

  1. Hi,

    I am in the initial stage of my career as solaris sys admin. This article is really excellent well presented by your knowledge and experience.

    Thanks,
    Rajesh.

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