How to be Your Own Linux Tech Support

When I first began using Linux, I was fortunate that I had a few friends around who knew it well, and were able to answer my questions and provide support. Not everyone is so lucky. Fortunately, these days there are a multitude of ways you can get the info you need without calling up Cousin Ron the Computer Wiz. He’s probably busy recompiling his kernel anyway.

Many of the things I’ve listed here are well known to long time Linux users, I’m hoping that those who are just starting out, or are considering the switch, can find a few useful resources for making your system work the way you want. Linux is meant to be tinkered with, there are examples and how-tos everywhere. With the extensive guides and forums available to everyone, you don’t often encounter a problem that hasn’t been seen and blogged about by now. There are also quite a few things already built into a Linux OS that are there to help you get the information you need.

--help

Most Linux programs and commands have a --help option built in. It’s rare I encounter one without --help or something very similar. If you’re trying to figure out what arguments a command needs in order to run the way you want, try

(command) --help

man

The vast majority of Linux distributions include man. It’s a small program with a large collection of manual pages for nearly every program/command on your Linux system. Many Linux distributions take pride in the fact that every, or almost every package on the system has a manual page associated with it. If --help doesn’t give you the answers you need, try

man (programme)

Here’s an example of the man page for apt-get.

man-apt-get

Top

top is a tool that shows you what processes are using the most CPU time, along with some other resource usage information. If something seems to be slow or locked up, top is one thing you can use to find out what’s going on. It typically updates every three seconds so it can be a good way to monitor your resource usage for a while. It’s along the same lines as the Processes tab of the Windows Task Manager.

Here, for example, I can see that Firefox is using up far more of my RAM than anything else running on my system, but it’s not currently stressing my CPU at all.

Using top to view resource usage

Built-In Documentation

Chances are, your distribution of choice already has a very impressive collection of documentation available to you any time you want it. To find out if it’s already installed, take a look at

/usr/share/doc

and look for directories called FAQ and HOWTO. If you don’t see them, then you don’t yet have the documentation installed. Not to worry, it’s a quick package fetch away. In Debian/Ubuntu style distributions, you can use apt-get or aptitude to install the package doc-linux-html (if you want your documents in HTML format) or doc-linux-text (if you prefer plain text files).

The HOWTO directory contains a HUGE amount of information on everything from printer setup to kernel hacking to setting up a Beowulf cluster.

howto-folder

Web Resources

There are places all across the internet dedicated to helping new Linux users, or even advanced users who are  having trouble getting things to work just the way they want.

Google Linux Search

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that Google is a great place to go when you need technical information, but what many people don’t know is that Google has a search system specifically targeted to Linux searches. You can find it at http://google.com/linux

Google's Linux Search

Online Documentation

Forums/Communities

When all of the above fails, there are always web forums and communities with lots of people willing to help out.  When posting to a forum or community, you’ll get a MUCH better answer if you ask a better question. Here are a few tips for how to ask for help in a way that will get you the fastest, most useful response.

  • RTFM. Even the nicest, most well meaning forum member will get irritated if you ask a question that can be answered with a simple web search or a check of the program’s man page. Check available documentation and Google Linux Search before posting to a forum. Chances are, you’re not the first one with this problem.
  • Be specific in your subject line. Saying “my video doesn’t work” will likely be ignored as you didn’t include any useful information. Try something like “X.org not starting on Dell Inspiron 700m in Debian 5.0″
  • Include software/hardware details. This relates to the item above. If your mouse is acting funny, include things like which version of X you’re running, what window manager, when did it start acting up, etc. The more detail you include, the fewer questions they have to ask you before solving your problem.
  • Be specific on the problem. Are you getting error messages? If so, what do they say? When do they come up?
  • Finally, use decent spelling and grammar. It really helps.

Forums

Some of this may seem like common sense, some of it may seem obvious, but every day I talk to people with questions that could be answered quickly and easily if they knew where to look.  We’ve all heard the saying about teaching a man to fish, well if you’ll forgive the bad pun, this is about teaching a fish to use man.  Get it? Yeah, I know, I should be a comedian.