FreeBSD: An Alternative to Linux

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2338, 2005-09-23, in the "The Linux Link" column, in both their print edition (on page 28) and their website.

Almost anyone who owns a PC nowadays has at least heard of Linux, the free and open-source operating system that functions much like Unix — but unlike Unix is capable of being run on an Intel-based PC. Linux is growing in market share, as more people learn how it is more secure, stable, and bug-free than Windows. Even Mac enthusiasts are benefiting from this Unix trend, with the introduction of Mac OS X, which is built upon Darwin, an open-source, Unix-based core which itself is built upon such technologies as Mach and FreeBSD.

It is that last one, FreeBSD, that will be the focus of this article. Some PC users — even those knowledgeable of Unix's descendents — are under the impression that Linux is the only Unix-like alternative to Windows for the PC. But FreeBSD, like Linux, has proven itself to be a reliable and fully featured PC operating system.

Speaking of descendents, FreeBSD is but one branch on the sizable and ever-growing Unix tree. FreeBSD proper got started in December 1993, as a result of the 386BSD project, which itself is a descendent of BSD (Berkley Software Distribution) Unix, which came into being in March 1978, when the University of California in Berkley assumed guardianship of Unix. Similar to so many other open-source software projects, FreeBSD licensing is governed primarily by the GNU General Public License (GPL).

FreeBSD on the Web

Anyone interested in learning the capabilities of FreeBSD, and whether it could meet their needs, should begin their research on the project's main website. There they will find links for downloading the latest production release, in addition to an installation guide, release notes for six different hardware platforms (microprocessor architectures), as well as hardware and installation notes for the same. There is a migration guide, but that would likely only be of value to experienced users.

No operating system is perfect, and FreeBSD is no exception. Yet the developers of the best operating systems are quick to admit and fix any flaws discovered. To that end, the main FreeBSD site has links to security advisories and errata notices. The first group, just like the project news, can be viewed using RSS, which would be handy to anyone who elects to switch over to FreeBSD and stay notified of security issues without having to check the website frequently.

The project site is also a good place to read more about the OS's many features, including: continual memory fine tuning, high-performance disk access, and multi-threaded architecture. From a network security standpoint, FreeBSD is tough to beat, with built-in support for IP firewalls and proxy gateways, access control lists, encrypted data storage, and other features not found in Windows. This well-known and robust security makes FreeBSD a favorite OS for Web servers, which are frequently attacked.

Applications and Documentation

When computer users are invited to consider an OS different from the one they are accustomed to, the most common first question that they ask is how many applications the OS can run, and whether applications exist that can handle the user's tasks. The KDE and GNOME desktop environments are both completely supported by FreeBSD. Likewise, the most capable and secure Web browsers, Firefox and Opera, are available for FreeBSD.

Moreover, there are countless other applications that run on FreeBSD. For business, there are programs for doing accounting, word processing, videoconferencing, databases, and scientific research. For the home, there are programs for Internet relay chat (IRC) and home automation, as well as entertainment, such as various action games. Programmers interested in developing their own applications on FreeBSD, can use the available tools (such as compilers and debuggers) for GNU C/C++, Java, and Perl.

Perhaps the best way to learn the details of installing, configuring, and making the most of FreeBSD, is to read the online documentation, in the form of the FreeBSD Handbook. It explains the basic commands, the X Window system, user account management, system security, data storage, e-mail, networking, and firewalls. Furthermore, it describes how to install typical applications, and how to configure the OS for maximum performance.

More Resources

For people interested in further exploring what FreeBSD has to offer, the BSDVault is chock-full of helpful information. It has the latest FreeBSD news, and links to past articles. It also has 13 online forums, which cover such areas as: getting started, hardware troubleshooting, programming, networking, and firewalls. This is likely the most promising place to ask questions of other FreeBSD users. The site also offers more than 80 online tutorials. As expected, the tutorials explain step-by-step how to perform various tasks, and include sample code.

Another source of FreeBSD news is the dedicated BSD section on Slashdot, a website that generally has enormous readership. Technical questions could be posted using the "Ask Slashdot" section category. Simply click on the "contribute story" link at the bottom of the Slashdot homepage, and complete the fields as appropriate.

Regardless of your information source, if you start using FreeBSD, after a while you may forget what it is like to battle computer viruses and spyware, and truly appreciate why BSD's mascot — a little red devil in green sneakers — looks so content.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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