The Oldest Free OS

Yahoo and Walnut Creek CD-ROM, two of the Web's busiest sites, run on FreeBSD.

By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols
Sm@rt Partner

April 9, 1999

Today's trick question: what is the oldest free operating system around?

If you said Linux, you're not alone, but you're wrong. The answer is the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) Unix variants.

While they don't get much ink, the BSD operating systems including Berkeley Software Design's commercial BSD/OS [ ], FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD all are sturdy and capable in their own right. Don't believe it? Consider then that Yahoo and Walnut Creek CD-ROM [ ], two of the Web's busiest sites, run on (drumroll, please) FreeBSD.

Like Linux, the BSD Unix uses an open-source model. Where they differ and this is important for resellers is in their licenses. Linux is protected by the GNU Public License. The gist of that is you can't modify the source code without releasing the changes to the rest of the world. The Berkeley license, generally speaking, does let you make proprietary changes to the operating system. This is a gross oversimplification, but the main point is that if you want to make proprietary changes to an operating system for, say, a vertical-market medical measurement system, BSD is the way to go.

That leads to another important difference between them. With Linux, the basic operating system from any distributor is always the same. It's the add-ons, support, reseller practices and so on that create variation. With BSD, there are actual differences between operating systems.

For bottom-line purposes, BSD/OS has, by far, the best technical support and services. FreeBSD is the most popular of the set and has the most applications that directly support it. NetBSD supports the most platforms, and OpenBSD is the only free operating system that addresses security and encryption issues in detail.

Linux, however, beats out all of the BSDs in terms of native device and ISV support. BSD, in response, is embracing Linux programs. While much is made of the performance and stability differences between Linux and BSD, I haven't seen it. I've never noticed any significant differences that couldn't be explained away by configuration and hardware issues. At one time, BSD had it all over Linux in networking, but Linux has, for the most part, caught up.

So, unless you're building fancy customized applications, why consider a BSD offering? I think there are situations where it is the better choice. For starters, if you and your people are first and foremost SunOS not Solaris or university BSD administrators, you'll find BSD far more familiar than the more heavily System V-influenced Linux.

In some networking areas, BSD does seem to be above everyone. For instance, if I were going to set up a dedicated ftp server to do nothing but fire gigabytes of files all day, I'd go with one of the BSDs. Any of them do a great job with networking and file serving. And, like other Unixes, they simply don't go down until you blow up the computer with a stick of dynamite. Finally, upgrading BSD to new versions over the Net is much easier than doing so with Linux.

Are BSDs for everyone? Nah. Are they worth considering? In some situations, yes; yes they are.

Copyright 1999