Although Linux tends to grab most of the open-source operating system spotlight, its hardly the only solid free software option. eWEEK Labs tested one open-source alternative, FreeBSD Version 5.1, which started shipping last month. The FreeBSD Project describes Version 5.1 as a "new technology" release, intended to enable users to check out new features, such as Version 5.1s expanded support for USB (Universal Serial Bus) 2.0 devices, RAID and serial-ATA controllers, and USB Ethernet adapters.
For production settings, however, the older 4.8 release (the most recent "stable" FreeBSD edition) offers better stability, particularly in areas such as SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) support. SMP support in FreeBSD was reworked in Version 5.0 to improve scalability by allowing multiple threads to run concurrently in the kernel, and these facilities are not yet as mature as those in Version 4.8.
FreeBSD 4.8 might also offer better performance, due in part to the debugging code contained in 5.1 for testing purposes. Pending further testing, the FreeBSD Project plans to begin a stable 5.x branch—possibly as soon as this fall—when 5.x should be considered ready for critical production deployments.
FreeBSD 5.1 can be downloaded for free, or bootable CDs can be ordered for about $40 through a number of sources linked from www. freebsd.org. FreeBSD 5.1 supports the x86, NEC Corp. PC-98x1, Alpha, SPARC64 and Itanium architectures. In contrast, Version 4.8 supported only x86 and Alpha.
FreeBSD includes a security utility that can minimize the damage caused by an attack on a service such as BIND (Berkeley Internet Name Domain) or sendmail by running the service within an isolated environment, or jail. FreeBSD 5.1 ships with new applications for managing these jails, including tools to list and run commands within existing jails.
Although not as well-known as Linux, FreeBSD offers enterprises a solid, free open-source option for their network operating system needs. FreeBSD 5.1 showcases the latest and greatest in the operating system, enabling users to test key architectural updates in preparation for when the stable 5-based branch opens this fall.
EVALUATION SHORT LIST
FreeBSD users can access a large number of software packages for the platform through FreeBSDs ports collection. We could either compile these applications ourselves or install them as precompiled packages. We could also install and run Linux applications on FreeBSD after installing a Linux application compatibility layer.
One result of FreeBSDs lower profile compared with Windows or Linux is that there are fewer precompiled packages for things such as security updates. Keeping a FreeBSD system up-to-date typically requires downloading security patches and compiling them.
Likewise, fewer commercial support options for FreeBSD are available, so it may pay to acquire in-house FreeBSD expertise.
As in previous versions, FreeBSD 5.1 includes a simple but full-featured system configuration tool, called sysinstall. We could access this utility during or after installation, which we found helpful. With Red Hat Inc.s Red Hat Linux, the configuration tools used during installation are different from those used after the install, which can be confusing during initial system setup.
FreeBSD 5.1 ships with several desktop environments, including K Desktop Environment and GNU Network Object Model Environment. These environments come in vanilla form, without many of the look-and-feel enhancements with which Linux distributors tend to extend these graphical interfaces.
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at jason_ firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a detailed look inside BSD, dont miss our in-depth analysis at ExtremeTech.