FEATURES & COMMENTARY
San Diego, CALIF. — Charles Babcock reports that the buzz in operating systems today seems to center on Linux. But there’s another OS generating a lot of interest – BSD.
Both Linux and BSD are growing faster as server systems on the Internet than their competitors, including Microsoft’s Windows NT and Windows 2000 combined, according to Nancy Stewart, senior analyst at Survey.com, an Internet market research firm that surveys information technology executives on their purchasing plans. In addition, Linux and Free BSD, an open-source version of the BSD OS, are expected to grow 177 percent as Web server systems by the end of 2001, Stewart says, compared with a loss of 7 percent for Windows NT/2000 and a loss of 11.2 percent for proprietary Unix, such as Hewlett-Packard’s HP-UX and Sun Microsystems’ Solaris.
The survey of 1,979 IT managers, completed in February, didn’t separate a FreeBSD share from Linux.
Much of the future success of BSD will depend on Berkeley Software Design Inc. ( http://www.bsdi.com ). The company, founded in 1991 to distribute licensed versions of the Unix developed at the University of California-Berkeley, offers a commercial version of BSD and is also a big backer of Free BSD.
FreeBSD competes directly with Linux in its pricing and distribution model, but, says Mark Garver, BSDi’s group executive of marketing and Internet systems, BSD OS and FreeBSD retain some advantage over Linux in security features and speed of networking.
“Linux is working to be feature-rich,” says Jon McCown, research engineer at security software firm ICSA.net. “BSD OS is working toward friction-free networking” and rigorous security, meaning BSD developers have gone over every line of the OS, looking for holes and closing them. “The Linux stacks [code sequences for particular functions] are just starting to move in that direction,” McCown says.
With its move to distribute Free BSD, BSDi is capitalizing on the acceptance of open-source code among Internet start-ups, application service providers (ASPs) and Internet service providers (ISPs) markets in which BSD OS already has a strong foothold.
But BSDi hasn’t always been so squarely in the open-source camp. The programmers behind the Free BSD, BSDnet and Open BSD open-source projects viewed BSD OS, the offering of the commercial company, as a potential competitor, and tensions sprang up between them and the company, McCown says. He follows developments in BSD because of the strong security features adopted by the various operating systems.
“There was always a sense of strain between the various BSD software projects and the company,” McCown says.
But that situation changed in March, as BSDi, under new Chief Executive Gary Johnson, acquired Walnut Creek CDROM, a major distributor of FreeBSD as well as Linux. BSDi’s willingness to continue to use the open-source programmers working on FreeBSD helped the company’s standing with the open-source community. Now commercial firm BSDi directly supports the giveaway copies of FreeBSD, while touting the special security and networking features of its licensed BSD OS.
Why not just go full-throttle on the open-source version of the OS?
“The open-source world has this general public license problem,” BSDi’s Garver says, explaining why BSDi is going down its chosen commercial path. Under an open-source code GPL license, the user of a source code, such as the Linux OS, must give back to the community whatever changes or additions the developer makes. BSD OS operates instead under what’s known as the Berkeley license, which does not require submitting changes back to the BSD community.
“That’s why so many companies develop products based on our operating system. They don’t have to give away what they considero be proprietary additions,” Garver says. Secure Computing ( http://www.securecomputing.com ), he says, builds a commercial firewall based on BSD OS, and Intel’s ( http://www.intel.com ) IPivot load balancers are also based on BSD OS. In addition, Hitachi ( http://www. hitchai.com ) produces routers and F5 Networks ( http://www.f5.com ) produces load balancing servers that use BSD OS.
BSDi also touts the security features offered with the BSD OS. Problems such as the common Unix buffer overflow exposure, where a malicious hacker crashes a system by putting too many characters into a command field and feeds the system rogue commands as it restarts itself, were identified and eliminated in BSD, primarily through the painstaking work of independent software developer Theo de Raadt. His open-source project, OpenBSD, set a standard for other BSD developers, who adopted many elements of his work.
In evaluating its position, BSDi concluded that it could carry its commercial strategy further and capitalize on BSD’s security and networking features. BSDi found it could produce customized Web, domain name and other servers, taking advantage of BSD’s inclusion of the Transport Control Protocol/Internet Protocol in the OS kernel. BSD OS is known for its speedy communications, and ASPs and ISPs want hardware that uses fast communications, Garver says.
In June, BSDi acquired hardware appliance maker Telenet Systems Solutions ( http://www.tesys.com ) of San Jose, and BSDi now plans to launch its own line of preconfigured BSD hardware.
Garver, who spent a year running the Advanced Systems Division at Dell Computer, joined BSDi as group executive June 12. He says his company is not trying to produce general-purpose servers. “An application hosting service wanted FTP [File Transfer Protocol] servers. We could re-engineer our code to execute only the FTP commands they were interested in,” Garver says. BSDi could produce Web server appliances, domain name servers or specialized firewalls, built to customer order.
A typical preconfigured appliance from BSDi is priced at $1,699, and comes under Berkeley licensing terms, so changes don’t have to be shared with anyone, Garver says.
After the acquisition of Telenet, BSDi announced its iXtreme rack-mount server series. BSDi will build-to-order a thin, 1U a unit of measure that is slightly less than the 1.75-inch slot in a server rack that include 42 slots single-processor server. BSDi will also build and configure 4U, 5U or 7U servers with more processors and storage.
The company seems to be on a roll. With BSDi and open-source programmers now marching more in step, BSD may be on a more level playing field with Linux. Still, Linux advocates note that Linux is being adopted by the mainstream. Sam Ockman, president of Linux systems builder Penguin Computing ( http://www.penguincomputing.com ), says Free BSD and BSD OS run many Web sites, but Linux is outstripping BSD Unix at new Web sites. Linux now accounts for 30 percent of active Web servers, according to Netcraft’sAugust survey.
Ockman acknowledges more years of development work have gone into BSD Unix than Linux, but, he says, “Older doesn’t necessarily mean better.” Linux’s higher volume of new installations and broader base of open-source developers means it will progress more rapidly through contributed code, Ockman says.
Microsoft Windows NT and 2000 and even Linux “don’t have the single unified vision of OpenBSD to implement a clear set of criteria” for security, says Gene Kim, chief technology officer at security software firm Tripwire ( http://www.tripwire.com ).
“Some of de Raadt’s notions were really novel. It’s a different mode of operating system prioritizing” than adding features, Kim says. Quickly adding features sometimes means inadvertently adding security exposures. What de Raadt did for Open BSD was picked up by the development teams of other BSD versions, giving them greater security, he says.
Now BSDi is working with BSD’s strengths to offer hardware that “takes advantage of hardware accelerators [in the OS], encryption engines, compression and decompression engines, and fast communications,” Garver says. While Linux enjoys the open-source spotlight, BSDi is trying to regain the footing it once enjoyed as an evangelizer of Unix with special strengths, he says.