Outside Looking In: The BSD Operating Systems

Technically, the BSD operating systems are every bit as good as Linux, so why aren't they commercially sucessful? eWEEK.com Linux & Open Source Center Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols and software consultant Brian Masinick explain why.

Discuss This in the eWEEK Forum

A while back, someone asked me why the open-source BSD operating systems arent as popular as Linux. Its a good question. Technically speaking, the BSDs are often every bit as good as Linux. Indeed, when it comes to security, OpenBSD is the best of breed.

Indeed, you can argue that BSD is actually more successful than Linux on the desktop. Im referring, of course, to MacOS X, which is based on Darwin. Darwin, in turn, is built on top of Mach 3.0 operating-system services, which runs on top of the 4.4 BSD operating system.

However, developers usually see Darwin simply as the foundation for MacOS X and its Cocoa and Carbon toolkit-based application. Apple says it would like Darwin to become an operating system in its own right for both its native PowerPC and Intels architectures. In practice, though, Darwin has made little progress as an independent operating system.

So why hasnt mainstream BSD become widely popular? The answer is that there is no mainstream BSD. Like the many Unixes of the past, it shot itself in the foot long ago by dividing into several different variants: SunOS, Wind Rivers BSD/OS, FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD. With five major forks, not counting Darwin, only SunOS, which became part of Solaris, has had great commercial success.

This was also the fate of many other Unixes, such as Coherent; Interactive Unix; Dell Unix (yes, Dell once had its own Unix); and Consensys Unix. Until Linux came along, both proprietary- and free-software Unix developers built their own unique operating systems. How many? By my count, theres well over a hundred different Unix and Unix-like operating systems. None of which, need I add, worked that well with programs written for any other Unix variant. It was, and is, an approach destined to make sure that no single Unix could achieve great success.

Linux broke this misguided model, in large part I think because of Linus Torvalds combination of quiet leadership and a willingness to let anyone and everyone code for the project via mailing lists and Usenet. This more-open approach gathered up far more supporters than the much smaller BSD development communities. In Linux, anyone was welcome to lend a developing hand; in BSD, only the truly devoted were welcome. By being inclusive, rather than exclusive, Linus made sure that Linux avoided the problems that kept not the BSDs but all the other Unix operating systems from mass acceptance.


By adopting the GPL and GPL software, Linus also soon garnered support from the Gnu/Free Software Foundation (FSF) community. The Gnu folks may have never gotten much of anywhere with their own Gnu Hurd operating system plan, but their tools, especially Gnu C, gave Linux a big leg up.

At the same time, the BSD community had never gotten along well with the FSF because of free software religious wars over GPL vs. BSD licensing issues. This kept the BSD developers from taking full advantage of the FSFs excellent development tools.

Since then, Linux has continued to gather developer support. In time, Linux parlayed this into business support. This has snowballed so that today for every mention of the BSDs, youll see one hundred mentions of Linux.

Again, from a technical and licensing viewpoint, the BSDs have a lot going for them. I run FreeBSD and OpenBSD myself, and Ive said it before, and Ill say it again, OpenBSD is the most inherently secure OS around.

But what the BSDs dont have is the business and technical support, independent software vendor products and support needed for any of them to become a first rank business operating system.

It could still happen. But for now, youre only going to see the BSDs in businesses with in-house staffs that have mastered them, and need them only for the server basics such as Web and file serving, firewall, routing and so on.

This isnt just my two cents. On the next page, Brian Masinick, a software consultant with vast and broad Unix experience, shares his thoughts on where BSD is today and why it hasnt garnered Linuxs popularity. Since I couldnt say it better myself, Ill let him tell it.

Next Page: A software consultants take on BSD.