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Online Troubleshooting Resources : HOWTO

Jean-Philippe Guérard


Revision History
Revision 1.52002-10-20Revised by: jpg
More dead links removal & URL updates. Author and copyright updated as per Horward Mann request.
Revision 1.42002-03-04Revised by: jpg
Dead links removal. Outdated links update. Revision of the HOWTOs and FAQs sections.
Revision 1.32000-07-24Revised by: hm
Revision 1.21999-11-20Revised by: hm
Added "Introduction to Unix" to Unix section.
Revision 1.11999-11-08Revised by: hm
Added to Mailing List Section. Convert to DocBook.
Revision 0.51999-09-18Revised by: hm
Initial release.

1. Introduction

The traditional means of troubleshooting computer-related problems involves consulting user's manuals, books, friends - probably enticed with goodies - and, when all the former do not yield a solution, calling the technical support service of the vendor of the product in question. And, we all know pleasant and reliably efficacious the latter stratagem is. Unfortunately, this is the norm in the sphere of commercial proprietary products.

In contradistinction, Linux, and related distributions, utilities and applications software, has largely been developed according to the Open Source model, wherein developers have used electronic communication over the Internet - typically in the form of publically-accessible Mailing Lists - to collaborate with their peers in the refinement of the associated source code. Such collaboration has also traditionally involved the online publication of user's manuals, lists of Frequently-Asked-Questions (FAQ's), knowledge bases, release notes, formal guides such as this document (HOWTO's) and tutorials. In addition, users often assist others through the forum of Usenet and other newsgroups and the posted messages are readily accessible in the form of searchable archives. These linux-related newsgroups are renowned for their high level of user participation. In significant measure, Linux may be considered a product of the Internet.

Considered together, these resources enable access to a large, ever-expanding factual database, and my intent is to encourage and direct the reader to utilize these repositories when faced with an issue not addressed in the documentation that is included with each distribution of Linux. Linux veterans who assist newcomers through the forum of Usenet soon become aware of the frequency with which certain technical questions are repeatedly posted - questions the answers to which are readily available in one or more of the existent online repositories. So, to diminish the likelihood of being "flamed" in response to your posted question on Usenet or irc , read further!

Armed with a browser, Linux users may rapidly become adept at troubleshooting their systems. The key is knowing how and where to look. My objective is to guide the user - particularly the Linux newbie - in this quest.

3. HOWTOs and mini-HOWTOs

HOWTOs are detailed reference documents on a specific subject, usually following a step-by-step approach. A HOWTO is a good document to help you discover a task or a topic you don't know. It will provide you with the basic steps and the major references.

These documents are particularly useful when you decide to provide or access a new service with your Linux system, or when you embark on a technically complex project. For example, you may have the option of accessing the 'net with a DSL or Cable Modem service - excellent guides are available in the form of HOWTOs.

Authors of these documents often include references and links to sites that they have found useful. You may find the information you need at one of these hyperlinked sites rather than in the HOWTO itself. For example, I found Linux Network Drivers, an interesting site for information about Network Interface Card drivers, in the Ethernet HOWTO.

To find HOWTOs, the first place to go is the Linux Documentation Project (LDP). The LDP includes a HOWTO Index Page that I suggest you bookmark in your browser.

These HOWTOs are written by Linux users and are periodically updated by the authors. Many authors provide the latest version at a personal website and a hyperlink to the latter is typically provided in the document. This version may be newer than the one available at the LDP website.

Note also that other HOWTOs are available, the authors of which have not submitted them to the LDP. It is definitely worthwhile trying to find these using an Internet search engine as I describe in a subsequent section.

6. Usenet Newsgroup Archives

The ability to search for and retrieve information from archived posts to the linux-related (Usenet) newsgroups represents a powerful means of troubleshooting in Linux.

Search engines permit one to search the archives by stipulating the forum, keywords, authors, dates, language and combinations thereof. Because the number of linux-related newsgroups is large, the likelihood of finding useful information is high.

The main web site that currently provides access to Usenet archives using a search engine is The most effective way to do a search is to use its Advanced Groups Search page.

I would like to relate a brief anecdote to demonstrate the efficacy of this approach. The first time I attempted to build a kernel, I was presented with this error message when I invoked a "make" command:

make[1]: as86: Command not found make[1]: *** [bootsect.o] Error 127
make[1]: Leaving directory `/usr/src/linux/arch/i386/boot' make: *** [zImage]
Error 2

I had no idea what as86 was, but I entered it as the keyword in the Subject field of the Advanced Groups Search page at, and was presented with a large number of posts from folks who had encountered the same problem. Respondents had provided the reason and solution: I did not have an assembler/linker necessary to create machine code, and the bin86 package provided it. I downloaded and installed a RPM package of the latter and was on my way. This entire process took about 10 minutes (I do have an ADSL connection to the 'net !).

7. Internet Search Engines

I frequently use a Search Engine to retrieve helpful or necessary information from the 'net. These engines catalogue pages from commercial, personal and academic websites, as well as Mailing Lists and the like.

Of course, there are a large number of available Search Engines, and I suggest you try several before giving up on a particular quest. Research has shown that any one of them catalogues but a small portion of existent web pages. It is worthwhile becoming very familiar with the operational details of at least one non-directory engine to maximize the efficiency and efficacy of your search efforts. You probably already have a favorite - I like, and will discuss it in a little more detail.


This engine has several novel features that are described in its Why use page. In particular, the engine often returns the most useful pages first; in fact, I have often found that the first listed page contains the information I need. Because it caches web pages, it is relatively fast at displaying requested items. It has a so-called GoogleScout (TM) feature, activated by clicking on the "similar pages" links, that provides additional relevant links with each item returned.

In addition, it has a specialized Linux Search Engine that I use as my primary Internet search tool. It searches the database of linux-related pages at further promoting search efficiency. Try it - I am confident you will bookmark it immediately.

8. Mailing List Archives

As you might expect, there are a very large number of linux-related Mailing Lists that enable developers and users to communicate and collaborate on projects. These Lists cover every conceivable aspect of Linux, from the technical arcana of kernel development to the relatively unfocused discussion of issues at the newbie level. Subscribers to a particular Mailing List are generally very knowledgeable in the List's topic, and detailed and useful information is often retrievable. The communications are publically accessible through Internet search engines and in the form of online Mailing List Archives. You will typically see archived pages when you conduct a search using an Internet search engine.

Not all Mailing Lists are associated with an online archive, but this is increasingly the case. Similarly, not all archives have an associated search engine.

Initially, try locate the Mailing List Archive you are interested in by typing keywords and "mailing list archive" in an Internet search engine.

For a listing of linux-related Mailing Lists, peruse websites such as the Linux Resource Exchange and the Linux Online Mailing Lists

A relatively new, excellent Mailing List resource is Geocrawler (The Knowledge Archive). This is a continuously updated, searchable archive of a large number of Lists that also allows one to register and subsequently post to any particular Mailing List. Its user interface is simple and its search function delivers messages very quickly. I highly recommend this site.

You may also find Mailing List archives at the following locations :

This is not a complete listing of archives and you may find additional sites with an Internet search engine. But, this should certainly get you going.

10. Online Unix References and Tutorials

As Linux is a Unix-like operating system, a general familiarity with fundamental Unix concepts such as the Unix directory hierarchy and file permissions is essential. Fortunately, there are many Unix tutorials online that collectively cover everything a user might need to know to use Linux. I suggest you bookmark the following as an online reference library:

11. Miscellaneous Resources

In this section, I provide a number of links to websites that I have found useful while learning to use Linux. This is an eclectic collection, but keep these handy.

11.1. Release Notes and Available Documentation related to the XFree86 X Window Server

This documentation accompanies each version of XFree86, and is available at the XFree86 website. Whenever you have trouble with your X environment, peruse the notes applicable to your videocard and chipset. These typically provide details about the configuration of the X Window System relative to your card, and will enumerate any "options" you have to include in theXF86Config file that governs X.

11.2. GNU Software and Manuals

Many important programs that are frequently utilized by the Linux user are GNU utilities - for example, the tar (archive) and gzip (compression) programs. Descriptions of these programs are located at the website where many Online Manuals may also be found.

These manuals typically provide a lot more information than is found in the corresponding man page on your system. For example , compare the man page and online manual for the tar utility.

11.3. A detailed Guide to Personal Computers

The Topic Index to the voluminous hardware guide at PC will give you a great idea of the contents of this website. I used it quite frequently when first installing Linux and configuring the X Window System. I learnt a lot about videocards and monitors, including the concepts of screen resolution, color depth etc., useful when troubleshooting X display problems.

11.4. An online dictionary of computer and technology terms

The PC Webopedia consists of a large online dictionary of computer-related terms and a search engine that provides links to documents that discuss each item in more detail. For example, I used this site to learn the differences between ISA and PCI buses.