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First Look: FreeBSD 7

I just got around to trying FreeBSD 7.0, which was released last year. FreeBSD is an open source operating system similar to Linux, and is preferred by some enthusiasts due to its flexibility, security and more permissive licensing. The server OS uses the BSD license, which is not as restrictive as the General Public License that Linux falls under.

Many of the new enhancements in FreeBSD 7 are not immediately obvious. You have to look for them under the hood. However, those wanting a list of new features in FreeBSD 7 can find it here.

FreeBSD is designed for advanced users in every respect. The installation program is text-based, complicated and rather dated compared with the ones found in new Linux distributions. For instance, the user must handle partitioning manually (automated partitioning didn't work right for me) and decide which packages to install. Users must also manually configure input device drivers, IPV4/IPV6 and other essential components. It's important to know what you are doing, lest you end up with broken networking, or worse.

The installer was very slow compared with the various Linux distributions I've tested. Installing a well-rounded system that included GNOME desktop with a few essential office/graphics/Internet applications took over an hour.

Out of the box, FreeBSD starts with a command-line login instead of starting the GUI manually. However, I was able to manually start the GNOME desktop environment by running gdm as root. While this is not necessarily a problem for intermediate-to-expert users, less experienced users may not know how to start Xorg manually.

FreeBSD struck me as a tool that is more oriented toward server environments where security is critical. It includes utilities that further augment the already secure UNIX environment.

For example, the jail utility in FreeBSD can create a separate userspace for any given software process to keep it from accessing the rest of the system. By comparison, chroot on Linux can provide similar functionality, but it is not as elegant. FreeBSD also has a chflag utility that can prevent important files from being modified by anyone, including the root user.

These and the other security utilities that come standard in FreeBSD can provide a level of security that cannot be achieved on Linux without extensive customization and configuration. Even in situations where jails are not used, the distance between root and normal users is widened, since many of the privilege-escalation tools common to Linux (su and sudo) do not work on a stock FreeBSD system.

If you have sufficient experience with UNIX systems and security is more important to you than convenience and user friendliness, you should definitely give FreeBSD 7 a try.

FreeBSD has now been released as Version 7.1, and works with AMD64-, Intel i386-, Intel Itanium IA-64-, NEC PC-9801- and PowerPC-based architectures. It can be downloaded here.

About the Author

Will Kraft is a Web designer, technical consultant and freelance writer. He can be reached at will@willkraftblog.com. Also, check out his blog at http://www.willkraftblog.com.

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