Getting into BSD
One of the advantages of having upgraded to a zippy PC is that I have enough memory and processing power to play around with different OSs in a VM. Recently, I have been toying with the BSD family.
The BSDs (BSD stands for Berkeley Software Distribution) are a venerable clan within the UNIX nation with a proud history (not that I would know what’s so proud about their history, other than that their roots lie in the hallowed halls of an academic institution) The four BSDs that come into question are FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, and DragonFlyBSD (a relative newcomer).
I cannot say exactly what the appeal is, other than the perceived notion that BSD Unixes are really hard-core, as if playing with them gives the feeling of treading on hacker territory. Not that Linux has any less claim to hacker glory, but BSD seems to be the path less traveled by, and I think that alone, that feeling of exclusivity, makes it very attractive. The other appeal is probably that by default, these distributions have small footprints and promise a good learning experience by not offering anything too easy like a preconfigured graphical desktop (which is always the tempting easy way out), but instead, force you to learn at the command line.
I have so far managed to install FreeBSD and NetBSD in VirtualBox. NetBSD only worked when enabling the VT-x/AMD-V option, while OpenBSD (for which there is an open ticket on the VirtualBox site) will not install successfully due to a segmentation fault no matter what I try. This is rather annoying, as I was very inspired by reading many OpenBSD testimonials, testifying to its security. DragonflyBSD installation seems to be even worse, as one cannot even get past the bootloader screen (there is a ticket for this as well).
As far as installation goes, the user friendliness of each in descending order is: FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD. While going through the installation screens of the latter two, one does tend to wonder how difficult it can be to write a more user-friendly installation script. However, getting through them does give you a little feeling of satisfaction, and it is rather reminiscent of what it was like installing certain Linux distros several years ago, with all that manual partitioning and so on.
I would rate the distributions in the same order in terms of documentation: FreeBSD seems to be the best documented, while documentation is rather sparse for OpenBSD, which seems limited to man pages and books that you have to shell money out for. Still, I guess if you’re a Unix (ans specifically BSD) fundi, you don’t need a guide book. FreeBSD and NetBSD both have user-oriented guides, and I rather enjoyed working through the NetBSD one. (DragonFly also has a handbook, but until I can actually get to run it, there is little use delving into it). Update: I have to admit an oversight in this instance: OpenBSD prides itself on very detailed and carefully documented man pages, and they encourage you to read those. Respect.
Apart from the above distributions, there are two desktop-oriented flavours, Desktop BSD and PC-BSD, which are both FreeBSD-based. Both seem to be active, which is a good sign (meaning that the websites are frequently updated and recently updated too). But as mentioned above, if I were presented with a graphical desktop, I would be too distracted to worry about learning the internals.
Update (2008/10/14): QEMU runs OpenBSD, DragonFlyBSD.