Beyond Linux, Free Systems Help Build The Web

By Lee Gomes, Staff Reporter
The Wall Street Journal

September 10, 1999

HERE's a little-known fact about the world's busiest Web site: It runs on a piece of free software. And it isn't the free operating system called Linux.

To serve nearly 80 million people each month, Yahoo! Inc. operates about 1,000 computers that run on FreeBSD, a program distributed without charge over the Internet. FreeBSD is the most popular in a trio of free operating systems -- all historically linked to the University of California at Berkeley -- that are quietly playing a major role in the evolution of the Internet.

Among operating systems, the internal engines that run computers, Linux has stolen the spotlight lately, as supporters hope it will eventually challenge the dominance of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows. The initial public offering of Red Hat Inc., the Linux software vendor, was one of the hottest deals on Wall Street this summer.

But the role of FreeBSD and its cousins shows how free programs keep changing the software world and creating headaches for big established players. Sun Microsystems Inc., a leader in managing big Web sites, is carefully watching the growth of Linux and other free programs. And Microsoft faces a particularly significant challenge, since the Redmond, Wash., company wants its forthcoming Windows 2000 to dominate the "dot-com" world where the freebies are strong.

"With Linux capturing the public imagination, the BSDs have gotten lost in the noise," said International Data Corp. analyst Dan Kusnetzky. "But they are very sophisticated technologies that do a lot of work in the world, even if people don't know about them."

The BSD programs and Linux actually share a common lineage, a collective development process and a rambunctious cast of characters.

The free programs are all variants of the venerable Unix system invented by AT&T Corp. And they aren't just running Yahoo. While Microsoft almost never talks about it, its own Hotmail free e-mail service runs not on its flagship Windows NT but on FreeBSD.

In fact, one recent survey showed that BSD accounted for nearly 15% of all server machines connected to the Internet. Linux leads the pack with 31%,and is the only major operating system making any gains. Windows had 24%.

The Linux saga is already the stuff of modern legend. In 1991, Linus Torvalds, a 21-year-old student in Helsinki, began writing an operating system essentially from scratch so he could have something to use on his home computer. The programs FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD, by contrast, are the descendants of code written in the late 1970s and early 1980s at UC Berkeley.

Factional battles and online fusillades between and among the various BSDs and Linux are common. OpenBSD was started in 1995 by Theo de Raadt, a mountain biking 31-year-old Canadian after being kicked out of the NetBSD movement.

BSD buffs like to think of themselves as a slightly more grown-up version of the "open source" movement, which distributes underlying programming instructions so users can study and modify software. While Mr. Torvalds has full control of Linux, for example, FreeBSD is overseen by a 15-person group called the "Core." What's more, the various BSDs say that their software, by virtue of its head start on Linux, is more mature and stable.

"We didn't write most of this code, so we don't have a lot of ego involved in getting people to use it," says Jordan K. Hubbard, 36 years old, an evangelist for FreeBSD who many people credit for its popularity.

David Filo is one fan. The co-founder of Yahoo says he tried several operating systems before settling on FreeBSD. Now, Yahoo has become a major sponsor. At FreeBSD's first users' convention, to be held next month in Berkeley, Yahoo is paying to fly in some key developers. Mr. Filo said he would still use FreeBSD if he could do it over again, since his team now has so much experience with the software. But for someone starting out, he says, he might recommend Linux. "Right now, there seems to be more energy and resources behind it," he says.

Such sentiments make some people wonder what the future is for the BSDs in a world where Linux is getting most of the "mindshare."

Mr. Hubbard says the ranks of FreeBSD users continue to swell. One reason is that all BSDs are distributed under a license that lets users do almost anything with them -- including put the software into traditional commercial products. The Linux license, by contrast, requires users to make any use of the software -- such as a piece of specialized computer networking gear -- freely available to everyone else. That restriction keeps many companies from using Linux in key products.

It might well make sense for the BSDs to put aside their differences and unite under a common set of specs. But peace may be too much to expect in the free software world. Two of the BSDs tried to merge a few years ago, recalls Charles M. Hannum, a programmer with the NetBSD project. But at a meeting between the two camps, "while everyone agreed it was a good idea," he says, "no one wanted to give anything up, and it just fell apart."

Copyright 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.