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04 February 2010, 10:26

Health Check: FreeBSD - "The unknown giant"

by Richard Hillesley

FreeBSD is the most accessible and popular of the BSDs, has code at the heart of Darwin and Apple's OS X, and has powered some of the more successful sites on the Web, including Hotmail, Netcraft and Yahoo!, which before the rise of Google was the busiest site on the internet.

FreeBSD rose from the ashes of 386BSD, the original effort to port BSD to the Intel chip, and claims a code lineage that reaches back to Bill Joy's Berkeley Software Distribution of the late seventies. The 386BSD port was begun in 1989 by Bill and Lynne Jolitz, and was destined to be the original free Unix-like operating system for the IBM PC. The first public release of 386BSD (Version 0.0) was on St. Patrick's Day, 1991, accompanied by a series of articles in Dr Dobbs journal, which documented the process.

The first functional release of 386BSD was Version 0.1, which was released on Bastille Day, 1992.

FreeBSD emerged in 1993, after the self-imposed task of supporting 386BSD on their own had proved too much for Bill and Lynne Jolitz. The patchkit which had been the underpinning for the BSD port to the 386 was revived and became the basis for the first FreeBSD release.

A rose is a rose

FreeBSD is Unix by any other name, and is admired and trusted by sysadmins and programmers around the world for its solidity and strength, and is also used internally by government agencies and many technology companies, as a developer and server platform. Cisco, for instance, maintains its own internal FreeBSD distribution for use in its next generation networking products. The advantage over Linux for such companies is that the BSD license is permissive, and allows companies to incorporate proprietary code and protect their 'IP', while taking advantage of the virtues of open source software.

For legal reasons FreeBSD cannot call itself Unix, but for much of its history, (with a code revision history stretching back to 1978), FreeBSD could claim to be the most sophisticated and technically advanced Unix-like operating system available on commodity servers running Intel or AMD chips.

During the nineties FreeBSD established itself in many sectors as the server operating system for web and ftp servers. It was known for its speed, reliability and years of uptime for the likes of Yahoo! and Walnut Creek, who were serving up terabytes of data before and during the dotcom boom. This period culminated in the release of FreeBSD 4.0, which was widely known as the most sturdy and reliable of server platforms.

The tradition continues. Although the BSDs have never received the publicity or support that Linux has found among industry leaders such as IBM or HP, they can still claim to rival Linux among certain classes of user, with Unix roots and a healthy craving for the old-fashioned virtues of security and reliability. FreeBSD remains a favoured operating system for web hosting services. In Netcraft's survey of the most reliable Web hosting companies for May 2009 FreeBSD was the host operating system for three of the top five.

But just as FreeBSD has always found a natural home on ftp and web servers, FreeBSD also forms a large part of the underlying code for millions of desktop operating systems (courtesy of Apple's OS X), runs Linux applications natively (courtesy of a Linux binary compatibility layer), and is often used as a developer workstation on laptops or PCs.

The devil is in the daemon, and in Apple's choice of Darwin as the name for the evolutionary version of OS X. The two horned devil which is the BSD mascot is sometimes known as Beastie, (which is supposed to sound like BSD when said quickly), and was chosen to represent the smooth operation of the daemons or background processes that run on BSD servers, but – if we are to believe the tale of the Daemon and the Texan, which first appeared on Usenet circa 1989 and told of the encounter between Linda Branigan and a Texan – not everyone gets. it. The Texan took exception to the Beastie on her t-shirt and asked,

"Does the government use these devil computers?"

Next: Cometh the hour

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