BSD is the software behind the world’s most popular Web site and the world’s most popular FTP site — but unless you’re a geek, you’ve never heard of it.
An open-source operating system like Linux, BSD was developed in the 1970s at the University of California-Berkeley, well before Linus Torvalds ever took a computer course. So why was it Linux that captured mindshare and public imagination? BSD’s obscurity is just part of the reason it is now considered cooler than Linux among the geekiest geeks. But the software some say is the most secure operating system in the world may be poised to make a Linux-like leap to the forefront.
The list of big-name companies and Web sites that use BSD is impressive. Yahoo, UUNet, Mindspring and Compuserve are on the list – in fact, perhaps 70 percent of all Internet service providers use BSD. Also on the list – Walnut Creek CDROM Inc. and its CD-ROM FTP download site, which the company says delivers more than 1 terabyte of data to visitors every day. Microsoft’s free e-mail service Hotmail began its life on BSD servers, and Apple announced in June its next operating system will be based on BSD. (Microsoft is a partner in MSNBC.)
Enamored with Linux
So why is Linux on everyone’s lips, and why are there about 10 times as many Linux users as BSD users? After all, they are both free operating systems that offer free source code – and BSD had quite a head start.
Legal troubles tell part of the story. Right as the Internal began to reach critical mass, in 1993, the BSD movement was hit by a copyright lawsuit from AT&T, which still owned the rights to Unix. At the same time, Torvalds was welcoming help from all comers, mainly young computer science students enamored of with the coming information explosion.
There are other reasons – much effort has been put into making Linux user-friendly enough for use as a desktop operating system. BSD groups have focused on servers, never putting much work into appealing to a mass market.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not some obvious jealousy that the new Unix on the block has gotten all the attention.
“In late 1991 there were 100 programmers on UseNet producing improvements for (BSD),” said Wes Peters, a BSD user from the beginning. “If not for the AT&T lawsuit at the worst moment…. Because of that, people said, ‘I don’t want to go with BSD now.’ That was the time Linux was gaining functionality.”
Talk to BSD users, and a quiet but clear sense of superiority comes through. BSD users, they say, tend to have computer science degrees, hold management positions and have 10 years or more experience in the field. Linux users, on the other hand, are young hackers doing impressive work but motivated in part by having too much free time.
“BSD has been where it’s happening in computer science research for 20 years,” Peters said. “It still hasn’t lost that cachet.”
Do you doubt that this has all the makings of a good old-fashioned computer science religious war? Ask Peters, who wrote an article for online magazine daemonnews.com earlier this month. His even-tempered prose spurred a thread 600 messages long on geek news site Slashdot.org.
When the best, brightest and most suspicious minds from the computer industry gathered in Las Vegas for the DEF CON trade show earlier this month, Linux-taunting by BSD sophisticates wasn’t at all subtle. And when one speaker announced that BSD CD-ROMs were being given away at the show, but Red Hat had declined to give away Linux CDs, there was outright jeering. Has Linux has become too mainstream and lost its appeal among “Ubergeeks”?
“That stuff will always be out there,” said Red Hat spokeswoman Melissa London. “I like the old U2 albums, and after some of their newer stuff came out, I liked U2 less.”
She was surprised to hear Red Hat declined the DEF CON opportunity, saying her company regularly distributes free CD-ROMs.
BSD was already a mature operating system with four different flavors when Linus Torvalds wrote the first line of Linux code. A direct descendant of the Unix operating system, BSD (which stands for Berkeley Software Design) dates back to work done by Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy to create the first free version of Unix when he was at Berkeley in the late 1970s. Later a group of Berkeley computer scientists added to his work, eventually beginning a project called 386BSD designed to rewrite Unix so it could be used on a PC with Intel chips. After Berkeley stopped funding the effort, BSD split off in several directions.
* The NetBSD group, which focused on creating an OS that could run on any hardware – PCs, Macs, HP servers, Ataris, etc.
* The FreeBSD group, which optimizes BSD for Intel chips.
* The OpenBSD group, which did a line-by-line security audit of BSD code, and now has what is widely regarded as the most secure OS available.
* And BSDi, the Red Hat of BSD. It’s a commercial venture started by some of the original Berkeley crowd that sells BSD and supports the product.
Requirements for success
Despite its dominance in the niche ISP market and its attractiveness as a server product, BSD remains a silent member of the Internet’s moving forces. Major PC vendors such as Dell will sell you a laptop with Linux; they won’t sell you any PC with BSD. There are also precious few applications for BSD.
All that will soon change, some say.
“Your readers will hear about it,” said Stephen Diercouff, who publishes BSD.org. “The emphasis has been on servers, but BSDi is moving into desktops…. And if one of the database vendors released a database that ran on BSD, you’d see a huge market share jump. I know there have been discussions with Oracle, Informix and Sybase.”
Oracle, for the moment, isn’t interested. “We have not had sufficient demand,” said Jeremy Burton, Oracle’s vice president of server marketing.
No matter, says Diercouff. Soon, the various BSD distributions will be able to run Linux applications, including office productivity suites such as StarOffice.
Rose says BSD could make even a larger impact in so-called “Internet appliances” – function-specific devices such as TV set-top boxes or Internet routers, where simple, streamlined operating systems are required
Better than Linux?
There is one significant difference between Linux and the flavors of BSD, according to BSDi spokesman Kevin Rose. Linux development is restrained by the so-called “copyleft” general public license (GPL). Any programmer who modifies the Linux kernel must make the source code available to the Linux community. BSD is not bound by the agreement – therefore, entrepreneurial-minded developers will stay away from Linux, he predicts.
“You have to give up your intellectual property to your competitors,” he said. “The OS itself is not going to see a great deal of innovation because there’s just no economic incentive to do so.”
Other BSD supporters make a quite different argument – it’s the frenetic pace of innovation by Linux developers that makes the OS hard to pin down and hard for companies to use on mission-critical hardware. BSD is a much more mature OS with far fewer updates, they say. All that makes FreeBSD user Matthew Fuller shrug at the religious argument.
“There’s a lot of things that Linux is ‘better’ at, and a lot of things FreeBSD is ‘better’ at, and a lot of those things can easily fluctuate on a daily or weekly basis,” said Fuller, who maintains a Linux vs. BSD Web page. “Thus, any definitive narrow statement that can be made is usually obsolete before anyone hears it.”