Windows Server 2003 Books: A Pair of Winners

Books by these heavy hitters in the Windows 2003 world may be all you need.

When my editor asked me to review a pair of books, I said "yes." I learned a valuable lesson. Next time I'll ask which books-and then check the page count. But, having given my word, I dove headlong into Mastering Windows Server 2003 by Mark Minasi, and
Inside Windows Server 2003, by Bill Boswell.

These are big books. How big? As I was carrying them from the mail center to my vehicle (a bicycle in case you were wondering), I felt the incipient twinges of sciatica, my arms ached and my knees protested.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but both books are large—Boswell weighs in at 1,300 pages, Minasi 1,700. Some certainly will grouse about the size and thickness of the books, and complain about the conservational and readable style that permeates both. Ignore them. A purist might call for a desiccation of the conversational tone of the text. That might save a couple hundred pages, but would make both virtually unreadable.

I was lucky enough to stumble across Mark Minasi's Mastering Windows NT Server 4 book several years ago and have been a huge fan even since. His latest edition to the "Mastering" series does not disappoint. This book covers the full spectrum of the Windows 2003 OS, and looks at other topics not normally found in a computer reference.

Inside Windows Server 2003

Mastering Windows
Server 2003

Mark Minasi
ISBN 0782141307

But make no mistake; Mastering Windows Server 2003 excels as a technical reference giving the reader pertinent information, proper examples and pointing out possible difficulties. The coverage of DNS and Active Directory is particularly comprehensive and exhaustive without being tediously boring—and it takes up somewhat more than 400 pages of the book. Minasi also covers everything from unattended installs, to DNS fundamentals and traps, to interoperating with older versions of Windows and other operating systems such as NetWare.

The book is well written, conversational and possesses a flair for humor, which is in sharp contrast to most other computer books which tend to be boring and tedious. If you have a test computer or, better yet, a small test network of three or so computers, you will find Mark's examples easy to follow.

One of the main qualities of the book, and its shining jewels is that provides answers for everyone. For the newbie it explains the concepts as they are used and it doesn't require rereading the book three times to have a complete understanding. Network administrators will find a number of troubleshooting hints and ideas on how to accomplish tasks. For consultants and designers, it has the in-depth knowledge. In addition everything that he writes about has been thoroughly tested before being put to paper.

I like the points in the book where he says, "I used to do it this way, but here is the problem, so now I do it this other way." If you need concise, try MSDN documentation. If you want to know and understand the difference between DNS stub zones, conditional forwarding and when you should use each, try this book.

The book also explores some other concepts and issues, including a solution for all the infighting and political turmoil that exists in your organization because this group of administrators doesn't want that group of administrators to get the Enterprise Administrator privileges.

The book isn't perfect. The small text is very hard to read and the glare from the glossy paper makes the book hard to read for more than an hour at a time. And Minasi would have served his readers better with one or two page summary of key points at the end of each chapter.

The Boswell Factor
Bill Boswell is known to readers of this magazine as a contributing editor—a job he got because of his vast pool of knowledge—something that is very obvious in Inside Windows Server 2003.

The author is upfront about offering an independent view of Windows 2003. For example, he states that Microsoft's minimum hardware requirements are inadequate for good runtime performance in a real workplace.

Inside Windows Server 2003

Inside Windows
Server 2003

Bill Boswell
ISBN 0735711585

The book is comprehensive; walking through all aspects of installing, configuring and running the OS. The quality of the prose is clear and understandable if you have minimal systems administrator experience. Even a newbie should have minimal problems following his steps.

Boswell organizes every chapter to begin with a list of what's new or significantly upgraded in this version of Windows—so if you're evaluating Windows Server 2003, or in the process of upgrading from Win2K or WinNT, you immediately know the deal.

Typically, each chapter begins with a good outline of its subject. If you do not have a specific problem to fix, but want a lucid synopsis of a topic, try finding the relevant chapter and read the first third or so.

Next, he introduces essential design principles, followed by process descriptions designed to help you identify any interoperability issues you'll have to worry about. Once you're really solid on all that, he presents step-by-step procedures for installing and configuring whatever features he's been discussing.

The book is also more than a series of drills. Boswell's coverage of the installation process isn't a mere wizard walkthrough. He helps you make crucial decisions about memory and partitioning—and helps you identify problems before they happen. (e.g., Upgrade your firmware—really. Disable hardware disk caching unless you're dead certain it supports Windows Server 2003. Remove UPS serial connections and non-essential SCSI devices during install.)

There's extensive coverage of automated installations via disk cloning, scripting, and Remote Installation Services. Boswell reviews what you need to know about adding new hardware, including the new Driver Protection blacklist (Windows simply refuses to install drivers listed there).

Boswell focuses on the newly revamped security Windows' security architecture. Kerberos, group policies, Active Directory security, file encryption, PKI are all covered in detail. There is a surprising amount of coverage of IA-64 environments—a plus for the enterprise environment.

After installation, Boswell moves methodically through a complete enterprise deployment: setting up DNS, DHCP, and other TCP/IP services; deploying (or upgrading) Active Directory domains; providing for shared resources; and planning for disaster.

The flaws in the book are not critical. IIS 6.0 is not covered. This is a very detailed book and might not be the best choice for a beginner, since Boswell assumes the reader is experienced with Windows. If your company decides to deploy Windows 2003, this book is an exceptionally well-detailed reference.

So which book is better? Is it Boswell of Minasi? Buy both is my initial response. But if you have to choose takes this into consideration. Minasi's is a better beginner's book and I like his explanations better than Boswell's. Minasi's style is more readable but the book is longer and lacks some detail. Boswell, on the other hand, is an exceptional guide to Windows 2003 for a person who has some experience with the product. It's also a somewhat better handbook.

The difference between the two books may ultimately be in their title. Minasi offers an opportunity to "master" Windows Server 2003—basically to feel comfortable with it—like the driver of a car. Boswell wants to take you "inside" Windows Server 2003, and provides much more detailed explanation of the vehicle.

About the Author

David W. Tschanz, Ph.D., MCSE, is author of the recent "Exchange Server 2007 Infrastructure Design: A Service-Oriented Approach" (Wiley, 2008), as well as co-author of "Mastering Microsoft SQL Server 2005" (Sybex, 2006). Tschanz is a regular contributor to Redmond magazine and operates a small IT consulting firm specializing in business-oriented infrastructure development.

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