Freedom is indivisble
Although FreeBSD hasn't had the public impact or profile of Linux it has grown steadily, as "the unknown giant among free operating systems", and is probably as healthy as it has ever been, offering the traditional virtues that are often associated with Linux, such as price/performance, security and stability on commodity platforms running Intel or AMD Processors, or tucked away quietly on widely used networking devices from the likes of Cisco, Juniper, Force10, and NetApp.
The BSD license has an idealistic and permissive relationship with the code. Third parties can take the code, repackage it, and pass it on in any form they wish without any obligation to feed code changes back to the community. BSD users argue that freedom is indivisible and the user should be able to do as he or she wishes with the code. In the words of Benjamin Franklin:
"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."
A natural corollary of this is that the code can be recycled in any form, proprietary or free, as long as the original attribution is preserved. This position has benefits and drawbacks, depending on your point of view, but from the perspective of those that advocate BSD licensing, reflects a faith in the better side of human nature - and if some parties appropriate the code for proprietary ends, so be it. Such is the price of freedom.
Free as in beer
The license has had some advantages for the BSDs. Despite the many proven commercial benefits of the GPL, BSD was able to absorb the advanced features of DTrace and ZFS when Linux couldn't, because Sun's CDDL open source license is not compatible with the GPL. Such is the price of staying free, a GPL advocate might say.
Licensing is a divisive issue, but is the core difference between the philosophies of the BSD and GNU/Linux communities, and is one of the reasons why GNU/Linux, and not FreeBSD, has been adopted as the universal operating system among the former Unix companies, because commonality, interoperability and continuity of the software are useful side effects of the GPL.
Where FreeBSD has been adopted by manufacturers it has tended to be used for networking devices or specialist applications that exploit the high performance characteristics of the operating system, or in some cases, because manufacturers can exploit the virtues of 'open source' and free "as in beer" software and still ensure protection of their 'IP', which BSD advocates would argue is an intended benefit of the license.
FreeBSD is not just a kernel, but an operating system, and the FreeBSD community, which is tightly knit and democratic, oversees all the software that constitutes a FreeBSD operating system, including the more than 21,000 packages contained in the ports system, which is roughly equivalent to Debian's package management system, and consists of software that has been developed outside the project. Just as BSD code finds its way into Linux distributions, FreeBSD uses KDE or Gnome and other software written for Linux. The FreeBSD community can be likened, in its focus on technical excellence and quality and the structure of its packaging system, to the Gentoo and Debian communities in the Linux world.
Coincidently, Gentoo has a version of its operating system that uses the FreeBSD kernel, and the Debian project announced last year that its own distribution based on the FreeBSD kernel would be given official slots in Debian's experimental and unstable directories. Both projects have preferred to retain the GNU userland in preference to FreeBSD's userland tools.
Debian GNU/kFreeBSD is described as "a port that consists of GNU userland using the GNU C library on top of FreeBSD's kernel, coupled with the regular Debian package set," and will make for interesting comparisons as the project matures.
Winning the game
The latest release of FreeBSD is version 8.0, released in November 2009, and follows the FreeBSD tradition of bringing new and stable features to a fast and robust platform. FreeBSD 8.0 offers enhanced virtual hosting with Jail v2 and network stack virtualisation courtesy of VIMAGE, Xen Domu support and VirtualBox, a new USB stack, and enhanced Dtrace and ZFS support.
FreeBSD may not have acheived the giddy heights of Linux in the public imagination, but is secure in its own substantial community of users, has been ported to a variety of architectures, and has spawned a number of offshoots, derivatives and forks, (of which the best known are probably DragonFly BSD and PC-BSD, which is aimed at the desktop user, features a super-friendly package installer, and has won awards for user friendliness).
But winning the game has never the primary issue for the FreeBSD developers. FreeBSD contributor and author of Absolute FreeBSD, Michael Lucas says:
"Competition doesn't really enter into it for most of us ... You don't see FreeBSD developers sitting in a smoke-filled room plotting the overthrow of Microsoft. We sit in light, airy rooms and plot where to get the best drinks."
For other feature articles by Richard Hillesley, please see the archive.
- FreeBSD 8.0 released - Update, a report from The H.
Other features in our Health Check series
- Health Check: Moonlight
- Health Check: Red Hat - This year's model
- Health Check: Mono
- Health Check: Ubuntu and Debian's special relationship
- Health Check: openSUSE - Then and now
- Health Check: Open Source and the UK Government
- Health Check: Samba
- Health Check: OpenOffice
- Health Check: Perl