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Book review "Perl For System Administration"

Perl Sysadmin


Yet another book review ! \o/

This book was released in Y2K. Seems like there was no new edition since then.

Perl for System Administration is written by David N. Blank-Edelman.

Very cool

Old bits

Some fun facts about how old is the book :

  • The book mentions "Perl is not ubiquitous" as a weakness when having to choose between Perl and other scripts languages.
  • The author thanks Usenix, SAGE and LISA conferences.
  • Recommends 😄
  • "NTFS driver will be integrated in Linux kernel 2.2"... ah memories


Security is always one of the numerous hats of a System Administrator...


Here are some notions explained in the book :

  • Poison null byte (still possible in 2020 ?)
  • open(TEMPFILE, ">/tmp/tmp.$$); Predicatble $$ on multi user machine, a malicious user can predict and steal a temp file and write custom text/command to force reader to execute what he wants
  • I discovered that "..." ". " were valid filenames (for bad people).
  • Interesting exercise with system monitoring (dates, content, DNS dump...)
  • The idea of Postmortem, long time before devops mindset :D
  • Classic DDoS SYN flood attack (I think the first time I heard about it was in a story about Kevin Mitnick)
  • Cool part mentioning "John the ripper", "Crack" or "L0phtCrack". "libcrack" and "npasswd" 💀

Things I discovered

I learnt also :

  • A lot of things about PPM.
  • A lot about macperl : cpan-mac and installme where you can drag and drop tarballs to install

Chapter about file systems

Very cool !

  • How MAC is different (data fork, resource fork)
  • How Windows is LOL (vfat = how to build something on top of a technical debt)

Corrupted check file

  • The sample code is cool
  • The sysread trick vs < > (read sequentially and stop at first error)

In general, how the author tells a story and explains sysadmin concepts each time is very cool -- I LOVE IT --


How quotas are explained is very cool.

Quotas edition samples are a bit hacky and brittle (not by the fault of the author) but proves "how to get the job done" with Perl.

Handling users

Some tips detailed:

  • GID is primary group
  • We can have a group password
  • Password * to disable login
  • $< and $> and $) and $( for real/effective user/group


  • Windows : RID + DID = SID
  • Impossible to recreate same user then computer owner change implies to rename user
  • Windows cannot give ownership, we can only take ownership

Unix vs Win

  • There is a password hash incompatibility (algorithm)
  • On Unix there is a superuser whereas on Windows it's more like super-heros (users with super powers)

Sysadmin mindset

Sysadmins have their own mindset (and the ones I know have a great sense of humor).

Sysadmin starter pack

  • "Nothing is foolproof because fools are so ingenious"
  • "Something is wrong and I have no idea what" (how some users report problems) lol
  • "Sysadmins are log file linguists"
  • "Handle with pack and unpack - this way lies madness and misery" 😃
  • "There are times where death is too good for a process"
  • "Security is continuum"
  • "You can be more secure but you will never be 100% secure" and in the same theme "It is always possible to find more to fear"
  • "Oog's password to get back into the clan's cave was probably "oog" " (about weak passwords)
  • "Detect local signs of perils" (nothing special but it sounds good to me 😄)
  • "Learn something from incident instead of only loosing time and effort"
  • "An user does not login from a lot of different places" (probably still true today even in the "mobility world" that we know today)

Process handling

Very nice chapter !

  • Inspect process with /dev/kmem, Proc::ProcessTable, ps, proc
  • Filewatcher windows very contemporary

Directories services

  • finger
  • whois
  • Active Directory (ADSI, DCOM, OLE)

Caracteristics : structured or not, some implementation details etc...

Networked, remote, hierarchical, structured, read many write few...

Very good chapter about LDAP, I skipped some parts at the end, but at least I have ready to use code if needed.

Other cool things

  • Control Windows windows with API !
  • Security bits
  • References at the end of chapter, original but cool
  • Very nice chapter about DNS

Not cool

  • Not for Perl beginners, sometimes complex notions are thrown without any explanation (@, \%, keys, map, $_, refs)
  • Sometimes too much details that will be outdated one day after the book is released (a bug in a very specific version of Net::NIS...)
  • Sometimes too much code (one snippet was 5 pages long, tldr;)
  • Lost with chapter about XML, not clear
  • SNMP and LDAP are probably not so well explained

Various Tips and tricks

  • Compare 2 tabs that contains numbers if("@arr[1..12]" ne "@arr2") nice Perl idiom (slice then convert to string to compare).
  • Do you know the SQL "SELECT ... INTO ..." ? Me not ! 😁
  • Good idea to compare SQL operators to Perl regex operators !


There are really short introductions, quality depends the topic:

  • XS and XML intros are cool.
  • LDAP and SNMP intros are too hard.


Very pleasant to let the author give a tour of Operating Systems for us for each topic, even (especially) if I'm less interested in some OS.

You should read this book! Definitely ! 👍

Top comments (3)

smonff profile image
🌌 Sébastien Feugère ☔ • Edited

I bought it second hand this year, first because I love Perl, secondly because the otter is cute. Second hand Perl books are cheap, we are really lucky people. In the US you find them in the trash, this is really a shame.

I knew nothing about LDAP, and right after I received the otter book, I actually understood our company was using it and decided that I should stop to set my own authentification and users management system and just use the damn existing thing after getting the appropriate rights from our admin. I read the intro about it in the book, and honestly, found it much clearer than most tutorials I checked before.

So, those kind of books are nice because they are long enough to be able to add all those kind of intros and disgressions. The side effect is that they become too long and takes quite a lot of time to read. This is how I started to read the Camel Book in 2012 at the Centre Pompidou BPI, bought it in 2013 and just finished the chapter about regular expressions during the first comfynment).

I really favorite cheat sheets (you know, those Eyrolles Éditions plastic ones) and books that are less than 200 pages. Perl Moderne (the french book) was my favorite book ever, because it is either interesting to read as a book and you could use it as a cheat sheet. Too bad it is out of print, my copy would need a good renovation. I think that I became a Perl developer mostly because of this little book.

thibaultduponchelle profile image
Tib • Edited

I don’t know and can’t find the cheat sheets... Any link please ?

« Perl moderne » is very cool but is somewhat different (very « task oriented »). I liked it but is not my favorite :)

Here is my copy :

My best book so far is « Modern Perl » from Chromatic. It’s more theoric, has notions about programming in general and is very dense. I consider it a masterpiece.

smonff profile image
🌌 Sébastien Feugère ☔

Not Perl related though.