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FreeBSD, Stealth-Growth Open Source Project

Given the rapid growth of Linux in the technology industry, it might be easy to overlook other open source Unix variants.

But recent numbers from research outfit Netcraft show that past is prologue. FreeBSD , that other Unix variant, has dramatically increased its market penetration over the last year.

Call it the stealth-growth open source project. According to Netcraft, over one million new domains were hosted on FreeBSD over the last year, bringing the total number in its survey of companies using the Unix-variant OS to over 2.5 million.

FreeBSD also continues to show up on Netcraft's list of the most stable hosting providers on OS platforms. In its May 2004 survey, for example, Netcraft reported that four out of the top 10 hosts ran on FreeBSD. Linux also claimed four. Windows showed up on two of the 10.

But why hasn't FreeBSD become as widespread as Linux? The answers may lie in its history.

The FreeBSD Project is one of the earliest open source operating system projects, and is a direct descendent of the original open source BSD work performed at the University of California at Berkeley. There are currently three mainstream open source BSD variants, NetBSD, OpenBSD and FreeBSD. Apple's OS X (Darwin) is also based on FreeBSD.

"Being a non-profit and volunteer-driven organization, the FreeBSD Project doesn't have a large budget to pay for usage surveys, but I can say that the widespread use of FreeBSD by a broad range of industry Web hosts speaks to the strength of FreeBSD in the cluster server environment," FreeBSD Core Team member Robert Watson told internetnews.com.

According to Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), which bills itself as a "center of gravity" for Linux development, FreeBSD is on a separate path compared to Linux.

"I don't think it's growing at Linux's expense," said Bill Weinberg, OSDL's open source architecture specialist. "The OSDL respects the BSD family as another family of open source operating systems. Linux actually inherits a lot of BSD code. We certainly look on it with a favorable light, but our mandate centers around Linux."

Weinberg noted that though the BSD community has been around longer than Linux, it is now much smaller than the Linux community, largely because of fragmentation of the Unix community and licensing.

Though he acknowledged that a FreeBSD license can be simple to deal with, he thinks the GPL license, under which the Linux kernel is licensed, fosters a better sense of community.

"GPL and related licenses have held the community together and guaranteed that there is a continuity in the code," Weinberg said.

Stacy Quandt, analyst with Quandt Analytics, also sees the licensing angle as a factor in the growth of FreeBSD, albeit a little differently.

"Apple based MacOS X on a FreeBSD kernel due in large part to its reliability, and the ability to create an open source Darwin community around a proprietary product," Quandt told internetnews.com. "At one time FreeBSD and Linux were comparable on the basis of performance and features," she said. "However, it was the issue of licensing and the reciprocity of the GNU General Public License and the industry logic that an operating system that was built by a community and not a single vendor is preferable" that altered the two projects' courses.

Quandt also contends that FreeBSD is not currently on the same level as Linux when it comes to supporting heavy enterprise workloads. "The community activity around Linux in the late 1990s and support from system vendors and large independent software vendors fueled key enhancements in Linux," Quandt said. "Improvements in symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) virtual memory, asynchronous I/O, a native POSIX thread library, as well as other features and support from multiple vendors [in Linux] made FreeBSD a less likely choice for enterprise workloads."

FreeBSD does, however, remain a factor in the infrastructure of the Internet itself, at least according to the founder of the ISC, the group that produces BIND, the dominant DNS tool of the Internet.

"On the one hand we applaud Linux for coming out of nowhere so late in the game and creating a robust industry based on open source concepts," said Paul Vixie, board chairman for ISC. "Furthermore, ISC hosts the main Linux kernel distribution server [kernel.org] as our way of helping the Linux community continue to thrive," he said.

"On the other hand we use FreeBSD exclusively for f-root (in 21 cities now, usually with three servers per city) and all of our other servers and internal development," Vixie explained. "We like the age of the platform. BSD has existed since the late 1970's and modern FreeBSD is extremely refined and mature."

The ISC also hosts the entire NetBSD project as well as an OpenBSD mirror and the only Ipv6-accessible FreeBSD mirror. In short, FreeBSD remains a critical part of the ISC's infrastructure.

"ISC could not exist in our current form without being able to leverage FreeBSD's strengths as we do," Vixie added.

As for FreeBSD, it has just released version 4.10, which Watson called the cumulative result of many years' work on FreeBSD 4.x and its predecessors. "It is arguably the most mature FreeBSD revision released to date," he said. "While it incorporates a carefully constrained set of new features, its focus remains providing a firm foundation for production use."

FreeBSD 5.x, which is the new technology development branch, is expected to become the new stable version of FreeBSD later this year.

"FreeBSD developers and consumers alike are extremely excited by the promise of FreeBSD 5-STABLE," Watson added, "and we won't let them down."