I must admit I’ve never read a technical manual or reference book cover to cover. Typically I skim, picking out bits and pieces applying suggested solutions accordingly. Usually I’m looking to solve a particularly stubborn problem. Once I’ve solved my mystery I rarely return to read remaining sections. Of course I may reference it from time to time, but typically the book ends up in my book purgatory.
These days I absolutely love electronic books because my purgatory over the years has grown and my wife is always asking “When will you throw out these old books?” My answer of course is “never”. All techie’s like to hoard old useless electronics and that attitude naturally spills over to manuals and reference books. Thankfully e-books allow me to feed my habit without renovating my basement for additional storage space. If I have the choice of e-book vs. printed I will always choose electronic. Plus you don’t have to wait for shipping and you can typically download right away, feeding my instant gratification habit.
One publisher I’ve supported in the past is Packt Publishing; I find their format most appealing and very convenient. In my mind PDF has become ubiquitous thus I can enjoy their offerings anywhere and most importantly on many different devices including my tablet. Better yet, Packt Publishing has a very generous Open Source collection. Being an Open Source advocate this appeals to me very much.
Recently they published a new addition to their OpenVPN collection, “OpenVPN 2 Cookbook”. This is the third OpenVPN reference book from this publisher. While previous books focused on a more “missing software manual” approach. This incarnation takes a completely different twist. It does away with all the “fluff” and focuses on specific tasks, system administrators would encounter on a day-to-day basis. The author ‘Jan Just Keijser’ has brilliantly collected one hundred specific tasks or as he calls them “recipes”, and outlines step by step implementation instructions. Jan Just Keijser is an open source professional from Utrecht, in the Netherlands. He has broad experience in IT, and is currently employed as a senior scientific programmer at Nikhef, the institute for sub-atomic physics in Amsterdam. He’s been using and providing OpenVPN community support since 2004.
While each recipe is specifically focused on a single outcome, the author has included a wide range of relevant problems or wish-list enhancements most OpenVPN users would encounter in a typical implementation. The book has a total of twelve chapters, ranging from “Configuring Routing”, “PKI Certificates”, “Two Factor Authentication”, “Performance Tuning” and “Client Side Scripts”. The range of recipes within each chapter is extensive and will be of interest to most OpenVPN users, even the most seasoned veterans.
Before diving into the content, the author establishes conventions and reader expectations by outlining requirements and target audience. While I absolutely love the format and content range I have to partially disagree with one statement, “This book is for anyone who wants to know more about securing network connections” and “OpenVPN”. While the author states prior TCP/IP, networking and OpenVPN knowledge is required, brand new OpenVPN users might be fooled into thinking they fall into this “anyone” category. I believe brand new users will find some recipe concepts over their head. While it is true, by following the author’s recipes, a basic OpenVPN server can easily be configured, I have to wonder, how much of this configuration will a newbie truly understand? And secondly how secure will it be? But before you lynch me on the nearest tree let me explain. I have always believed before implementing an application, device or appliance, you have to understand it well and know each configuration parameter like the back of your hand. This especially rings true, for security type solutions. Given the choice of two firewalls, (Turn-Key Appliance vs. Open Source) Appliance installed with a cookie cutter configuration, while open source configured by sys admin who understands each rule inside and out; I will always choose open source. A properly configured firewall, be it open source or other, is much more secure than the most expensive vendor appliance when configured poorly. Honestly, with the vast range of topics covered in this book, this is my only criticism.
The conventions used by the author are easy to understand and more importantly easy to follow. Each recipe consists of several sections; a brief introduction, “Getting ready”, “How to do it”, “How it works”, “There’s more…” and “See also”. Most are self-explanatory, but the author’s use of “There’s more” are a great way of explaining related concepts and/or link to other chapters within the book. This establishes a connection and inter-dependence between different OpenVPN concepts. I believe this approach helps readers understand the “big picture” and overall impact of each concept presented. In the “How to do it…” section, the author outlines easy to follow step-by-step commands with brief explanation. While intermediate and advanced users will breeze through these commands, true beginners may find some commands overwhelming. A more verbose explanation might be more helpful in these situations. But overall commands are detailed with expected output (if applicable) and this should help beginners. The use of graphs and diagrams is well done. There is nothing worse than confusing diagrams or graphs, just adding salt in the wound.
Intermediate users will find all chapters of great interest beginning with proper configuration procedures, certificate creation to troubleshooting routing issues. More advanced users will enjoy “Performance Tuning” and “New Features”. There is something for everybody in this book and this is why I like it. Seasoned system admins are always looking at tweaking performance or adding new “shiny” add-ons to improve overall cool-factor of their implementation. Intermediate users are looking to improve their overall implementation by doing the same thing better or more secure. OpenVPN 2 Cookbook has them covered.
This book has great appeal to me and I believe most of you will agree. Its approach of get-in, get what you need through step by step instructions and get-out is very helpful for system admins. There is nothing worse than wasting your time reading a lengthy chapter only to find little of value at the end. The “recipe” approach saves you time and does away with all the fluff. You get-in, get what you want and move on to other fires in your day-to-day job. OpenVPN 2 Cookbook has become a permanent addition to my reference library, I’ve already taken first steps at improving my OpenVPN implementation with some new features discussed in this book. I give it two thumbs up, if you’re an Open Source enthusiast or looking for a great VPN solution don’t waste your time with other books, this one will help you set up a secure and reliable solution at a fraction of the cost.
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