Beyond Windows and Linux: Discovering the BSDs
The computer industry can be a scary place. Products try to evolve carefully, but get caught in the publicity machine and quickly grow out of control. This year's poster child for too-fast growth is Linux. While many network managers have found Linux to be more stable and reliable than Windows 2000, they also have begun to worry about whether the hype machine will destabilize Linux. Into this picture steps Linux's lesser-known cousins, the Berkeley Software Distribution-based operating systems - FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD and BSDI.
The BSDs have been around for a long time - longer than Linux. But they have received much less attention than Linux in the press because they have fewer noisy supporters. Nevertheless, they continue to thrive, because of their similarities to, and differences from, Linux. Like Linux, the BSDs are free, fast and have a variety of software available for them. In addition, BSD kernels tend to be more stable than Linux kernels, BSDs run on a wider variety of hardware and have fewer security issues.
But where the BSDs tend to really shine is in networking. TCP/IP speed tests run on identical hardware often show the BSDs to be faster than Linux. While the Linux community has focused on enabling Linux to use more esoteric hardware, the BSD community has worked on making the network infrastructure faster and easier to extend. This has caused a number of network hardware vendors to use customized versions of BSDs, particularly NetBSD, as the internal operating systems of their commercial products.
As the lesser-known players in the free operating system market, the BSD development groups have had more opportunity to work on the core of their products. FreeBSD has the largest market of the BSDs and gets the most development interest. NetBSD runs on an incredible variety of CPUs, including some systems that leave even the fastest Intel chips in the dust. OpenBSD's main focus is security, and it attracts developers for whom that is the main concern. BSDI is the commercially supported member of the gang, with fewer features but a well-established reputation for rock-solid products.
This year, some large hardware companies such as IBM and Dell have started shipping Linux preinstalled for customers who request it. None of the BSDs have gotten this type of attention. However, it is well known that many large Internet service providers use one of the BSDs (FreeBSD) to run their production mail and Web servers. It is common to find BSD-based Internet servers that have not crashed or been rebooted in years.
This is not to say that Linux shouldn't be considered for serious network tasks. But any shop that is considering Linux should also take a look at the BSDs, particularly if they want stability and less excitement in their operating system.