Move Brings Two Biggest BSD Unix Variants, FreeBSD and BSD/OS, Under One Tent
By Jeffrey Carl
Confirming a deal that had been whispered about among the BSD Unix community for months, Berkeley Software Design, Inc. (BSDI) and Walnut Creek CD-ROM announced on March 9 that they would merge to form a new company under the BSDI name. The significance of the announcement lies in that it brings the vendor of commercial BSD-based systems (BSDI’s BSD/OS operating system) together with the primary distributor of the largest free BSD variant (FreeBSD), signaling a major push toward unity among the BSD Unix flavors.
The move also opens the door to more intermingling of code between the two OSes, since some of FreeBSD’s key developers were employed by Walnut Creek and will now be employed by BSDI, and members of BSDI’s BSD/OS engineering team may be contributing code to FreeBSD. In a separate move, Walnut Creek’s Slackware Linux distribution will be spun off into a separate company, run by longtime Slackware chief Patrick Volkerding.
In the short term, users of FreeBSD and BSD/OS won’t see much change to the current products (FreeBSD 4.0 and BSD/OS 4.1). BSDI will continue to offer their commercial BSD/OS and provide paid support and consulting, while FreeBSD will remain free. However, BSDI will soon offer commercial support options for FreeBSD – potentially paving the way for FreeBSD’s entry into the enterprise market in the same way that commercial support for Linux from RedHat, LinuxCare and others did for Linux. Just as important to the enterprise market, BSDI CEO Gary Johnson said that there are plans to implement a “BSD engineer” certification program by the end of Q2 2000.
In the longer term, the move offers a wealth of potential possibilities by placing the resources of a well-funded corporate entity behind promotion of BSD Unix and encouraging commonality between the OSes. BSDI has said that it will work to develop a common Application Binary Interface (ABI) between FreeBSD and BSD/OS, enabling an application written for one OS to run on the other without any modification. While specifics are still very much up in the air, it is likely that some elements from each OS will find their way into the other, over the course of the next few OS releases.
Unconfirmed possibilities include extending FreeBSD’s hardware support with the addition of some BSD/OS code, and making user-friendly elements like the FreeBSD “ports collection” software installation scheme available as an optional add-on to BSD/OS. Still, BSDI is adamant that the merger won’t make users of FreeBSD or BSD/OS sacrifice any of the qualities they treasure in their OS of choice.
Most exciting for many *BSD users is the likelihood that many of the “old school” computer scientists who were part of the UC Berkeley Computer Science Research Group (CSRG) that developed BSD Unix and are currently affiliated with BSDI will be brought into the BSD community. While BSDI hasn’t firmed up its message about which OS to push to what constituency, it is likely that FreeBSD will continue to appeal to the open-source community while BSD/OS will be aimed at commercial and enterprise users.
Why was the merger done? To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, the BSDs must all hang together, or surely they will hang separately. BSDI says that, between the two operating systems, there are at least two million BSD servers running out there. BSDI cites their collective market share as 15 percent of all Internet sites, as well as being used by nine out of ten ISPs or NSPs. Between the two OSes, customers include Microsoft Hotmail (which reportedly tried to convert to Windows NT but reverted to FreeBSD after numerous problems), UUnet and Yahoo! (which also made an equity investment into the new BSDI).
Still, the public presence of BSD Unix outside these groups is nearly nil, while Linux has garnered massive mindshare. “BSD is pervasive throughout the Internet … but the world at large doesn’t know it,” said BSDI Marketing Manager Kevin Rose. While this can be attributed to large number of factors, it lies largely in the fact that commercial BSD/OS has never had mass mindshare, while the free BSD variants with more users have never had the money to undertake real promotional campaigns.
While BSDI won’t discuss what the relative portions of those two million servers are FreeBSD or BSD/OS, it is relatively certain that the majority are running FreeBSD – which has never had the funding to promote its offerings on a level equivalent to what Linux distribution makers have done. The merger will likely put significant cash resources behind the promotion of BSD Unix for the first time. BSDI CEO Johnson said, “everything we’re doing is for the betterment of BSD … the idea is to promote not BSD/OS, not FreeBSD, not NetBSD, not OpenBSD, but BSD.”
FreeBSD Chief Evangelist Jordan Hubbard said that the merger also leaves the door open to cooperation with the other free BSD variants, NetBSD and OpenBSD. BSDI will be working to bring more third-party applications to BSD, as well as promoting publication of BSD books and developing user groups.
The fact that many of the technical details of the merger are still undecided leaves the door open to speculation that philosophical differences (or developer egos) may complicate the implementation of the full possibilities of the merger. Still, the merger announcement is a true turning point in the history of BSD Unix, and a much-needed encouraging sign for the platform.