Monday, December 16, 2013

Three Books You Too Should Read This Year (Or Early 2014)

For the holiday season, The Grumpy Reader fishes out a selecton of recent books you should read even if you think you're too busy.

I'm sure you've had that feeling too: There are times when there's too much coming your way when you're already busy, so some things just fall by the wayside for too long. In my case the victims of my unpredictable schedule were books that publishers sent me for review in one form or the other, and those reviews just never got written as I wanted to in between other projects that were likely less interesting to the public at large.

But enough about me, here by way of making up for not getting around to this before are my slightly compressed thoughts about some important books released this year, just in time for your holiday shopping:


The Practice of Network Security Monitoring: The Best Surveillance Book You'll Read Anytime Soon

When I first heard that Richard Beijtlich was working on a No Starch Press title quite some months back, I immediately told my contacts at No Starch that I'd love to have a review copy, the sooner the better.

If Richard's name does not ring a bell, you may not have followed Internet security writing too closely and you could do worse than head over to Richard's blog at Tao Security and browse his online articles. In addition to prolific blogging and consulting activities, he is also the author of several highly acclaimed books in the field, and every now and then it's possible to sign up for his classes (see the blog reference for links).

The Practice of Network Security Monitoring is one of those books that I've very much enjoyed reading, but also one that for various reasons I found surprisingly difficult to review in a way that I feel does the book and its author justice.

It reads well. Richard spends enough time on basic concepts of network security monitoring early that the novice will be encouraged to go on, and once the basic concepts are laid out, the text alternates nicely between short expositions of theory and follow-on hands on sections that offer enough detail that the techies will have enough pointers to start exploring further but are hopefully not extensive enough to scare off those readers who really want most of all to follow the logic of the may sub-activities in the network security monitoring field.

It offers a lot of useful information in a reasonably compact format. But interesting and useful in this context on a technical level also means that you, dear reader, may be entering an area with a large set of legal pitfalls.

The network security monitoring system described in The Practice of Network Security Monitoring (all of it free software, fortunately) is designed to capture and store all network traffic passing through designated interfaces. That certainly has its uses, and the book offers a few delightful examples of analysis, including one scenario that reconstructs the exact sequence of events in a targeted malware attack.

But the level of detail recorded by these tools, including the content of all traffic, comes with a big warning: While the details will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, setting up and using the tools as described here outside of a strictly controlled lab environment for pure research purposes is likely to be unconditionally illegal or at least require you to obtain specific permission from the relevant authorities or to be a member of a government that has already acquired a specific warrant.

The fact that the book was published at more or less the same time the various revelations about NSA's surveillance activities became public may have helped it sales, but the somewhat charged atmosphere those revelations created also made it a little harder to write this review. The trickle of leaked documents looks set to go on for a while more, but I feel rather confident that The Practice of Network Security Monitoring is likely to be the best technical book about surveillance you read this year or the next.

The Practice of Network Security Monitoring: Understanding Incident Detection and Response by Richard Bejtlich, No Starch Press, July 2013, 376 pp. ISBN: 978-1-59327-509-9. Available Here and at better bookstores.


Sudo Mastery: You're Doing It Wrong, But Not For Want Of Trying

If you're a system administrator or a user of Unix-like systems, you're likely to at least know about the sudo command, which lets ordinary users execute commands with other than usual permissions and privileges. But it's a program that comes with its own set of quasi-mythological misunderstandings.

In fact, as this book aptly demonstrates, most people who use sudo on a daily basis more likely than not are doing it wrong. Contrary to common belief, sudo is not actually 'the program that gets you root access'.

There were no good books about sudo around, so Michael W. Lucas set out to write one as part of his Mastery series (I've covered some of the titles in the series before, see my reviews of SSH Mastery and DNSSEC Mastery).

Like the other titles in the series, Sudo Mastery is a compact book (the PDF version comes to 135) that focuses on an important tool in the sysadmin's toolbox. It's clearly written for a sysadmin audience, but Michael does walk the reader through the basics of the Unix users, groups and permissions based security model and discusses some of its problems before he dives into how to make sudo do its best for you.

The book's subtitle is User Access Control for Real People, and this thinking shows through clearly in the text. Sudo Mastery is written with the working sysadmin in mind, and at most times the description of a new feature comes with an anecdote that clearly stems from practical experience.

At the end of the book, you will have been exposed to the bulk of sudo's features, and you will have learned how to construct your own access system that for all practical purposes, Role Based Access Control system. Or, at the very least, a system that will be more logical and maintainable than what you started with, and one that is far superior the binary root/not root game sysadmins and their users play all too often.

Like anything else Michael has written, this comes highly recommended. You can get your copy of Sudo Mastery directly from Tilted Windmill press here or through good bookstores.

Sudo Mastery: User Access Control for Real People, Tilted Windmill Press, November 2013 ISBN-10: 1493626205 ISBN-13: 978-1493626205


Absolute OpenBSD, 2nd, edition: The Book About My Favorite Operating System

Regular readers will know that I have a favorite operating system, and it's called OpenBSD. Until April of this year, the most recent widely known book about OpenBSD was Michael W. Lucas' 2003 title Absolute OpenBSD. Then, finally, the much refreshed Absolute OpenBSD, 2nd edition was published.

I was close enough to the project myself as that book's technical editor that I was a little shy about writing much about the title myself when it came out, but after not looking at it for some months I can say that the result is definitely worth your time.

I even think that it would be a good idea to hand this book and an OpenBSD CD set to students as their first Unix. OpenBSD is a lot more compact and logically structured than a lot of the competition, and with Michael's 2nd edition to supplement the included man pages and FAQ, there's even a chance they will learn to expect that the system defaults are set to sane values and that there is a perfectly logical reason for everything your system does.

Absolute OpenBSD, 2nd Edition: Unix for the Practical Paranoid by Michael W. Lucas No Starch Press, April 2013, 536 pp. ISBN: 978-1-59327-476-4. Available from the publisher here and through good bookstores.

If you still haven't done your geek holiday shopping, these are my season's recommendations. Even if you read this some time past the holidays, all of these titles will be valuable additions to the actively used parts of your tech library.

1 comment:

  1. I have given some trainees Absolute OpenSBD, a CD set and an old computer. Worked very well, I recommend this to everyone having trainees coming from Windows Gamecamp traveling to IT professional with a stop at Unix administration.

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