Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

BSD revisited

It’s been a few years since I dabbled in BSD. I was enthused enough about it to help out with a new project that aims at creating a BSD certification. Due to some health problems I had to let that go. But why is BSD appealing?

I am playing with Linux for somewhat more than five years. Soon after I ran into BSD as it was mentioned in newsgroups by some who didn’t like Linux anymore, as it became too userfriendly and GUI-based. Led more by curiosity than by knowledge I dove into the world of BSD.

Linux has it’s roots in Unix, but BSD is Unix (though it would be better to say Unix-like) and proudly carries it’s torch. The hard work of a team of developers removed all proprietary code from the original Unix in the early 1990s. The BSD license differs somewhat from the GPL, which allowed for instance Microsoft to use parts in it’s Windows operating system. Binary, closed source redistribution is allowed under the BSD license.

I also found the BSD playing field refreshingly simple. At that time you had three big names. OpenBSD with a very very high focus on security, NetBSD aiming at maximum portability and FreeBSD as the accessible BSD. OpenBSD is hardly a fringe OS as it is the backbone of a serious part of the internet infrastructure. In terms of security it is unparallelled.

At that time FreeBSD was the only one I could really do something with. I was still working mostly under Windows and was glad the then current Linux distributions had a graphical installer. FreeBSD had some features that made it “easy” to install, like the autopartition option and the exemplary FreeBSD Handbook, which is something Linux distributions might take a look at. Once installed it looked similar to your average Linux desktop, which should not be surprising since the KDE and GNOME desktops are available for yours truly.

A few years ago Distrowatch decided to incude BSD in it’s listings. As I recall that didn’t happen without some criticism as some were determined to focus more on the differences between BSD and Linux than on seeing two major open source movements with widely shared goals and methods. If you like to know more about the differences and similarities of BSD and Linux this article might interest you. A quick look at the Distrowatch website will also reveal that there has been some change in the BSD world. Currently it lists twelve active BSD versions of which FreeBSD as the highest ranking, followed by PC-BSD and DesktopBSD.

You won’t find many articles or references in mainstream IT magazines and most of the Linux crowd wouldn’t know where to start either. Two interesting starting points would be the BSD section of Slashdot or the BSD dev center pages with O’Reilly. Dru Lavigne, front woman for the BSD Certification Group, established author for books on BSD and BSD advocate keeps a blog at ittoolbox. Once you start digging you will find that BSD has very active and involved communities, an example of which can be found at BSDForums.

Back to the original question: “What makes BSD appealing?”. First, it is firmly rooted in decades of Unix history, even more than Linux, with a very strong focus on security and stability.  In recent years FreeBSD tried to follow a more Linux-like release pattern resulting in more buggy and unstable releases. A nuisance and accepted custom in the Linux wolrd, but a mortal sin in the BSD world but the FreeBSD team seems to be back on the original track again. Second, many BSD features have found and are finding their way into Linux distributions. One example, the methods you can use to install software. FreeBSD offers two systems, via the ports collection (installing from source) and via packages (pre-built binaries). Gentoo’s Portage ows much to FeeeBSD. And don’t think you are restricted in your choice of software. At the time of writing there were 17.300 ports, which is slightly less than the Debian repositories.  This means that you won’t miss much when you use FreeBSD instead of your Linux distribution. Third, BSD support various hardware platforms. NetBSD has perhaps the widest support, but FreeBSD is holding it’s own with support for Alpha, AMD64, i386, IA64, PC98, PowerPC and Sparc64.  Fourth, it is highly educational to get acquainted with BSD. Digging into OpenBSD will definitely enhance your security awareness. Personally I learned some hardcore skills for Linux via Unix and BSD. Fifth, we all want to be geeks right 😉 . Within our own Linux circles you can enhance your standing by casually dropping into a conversation that you use BSD on your server. Some might not agree with your choice, but at least you are the centre of attention and carry geekdom one step further.

My next question would be whether FreeBSD is a good choice for the desktop or if one of the other BSD’s might be a better choice? How do they handle the problems with codecs and drivers? And software management? Those questions will be dealt with in three articles, about FreeBSD, PC-BSD and DesktopBSD, to appear in the coming weeks.

Tags: BSD, Linux

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