News While It's Still Hot

The BSD Unix Projects Keep Humming Along

Published: August 2, 2006

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Years ago, the Linux operating system stole the open source show and arguably the hearts and minds of the IT industry--or at least those parts of the industry that are inclined to support and use open source software. But with the advent of OpenSolaris a year ago as an open source Unix implementation, Linux is no longer the only option. And, it never was. There are three major BSD Unixes out there, and a number of others, and they are innovating, too.

(Let's not forget that Solaris is itself a variant of BSD with a lot of AT&T Unix SVR4 thrown in for good measure, and Apple's Mac OS X Server is also a BSD variant.)

The FreeBSD variant of the BSDs is probably the best known, and although it is difficult to get any hard numbers concerning BSD installations, FreeBSD is probably the most widely distributed open source Unix. (Although, with 5 million installations, Solaris 10 can probably grab that mantle now, and if not now, then soon.)

FreeBSD captured some news in recent months when the project was spotlighted for its decision to port FreeBSD to Sun's "Niagara" Sparc T1 processor. The Niagara chip is comprised of eight four-threaded UltraSparc-II cores, and running at 1.2 GHz, a Niagara can do about as much work as a two single-core Xeon DP "Irwindale" box while only emitting around 72 watts under normal workloads and around 79 watts under heavy loads. This comparison sounded great earlier this year, when Intel's top-end, single-core Xeon DP processors were well above 100 watts for a single-core, but last month, the dual-core "Woodcrest" core architecture chip for two-socket servers was launched, and running at 3 GHz dissipates about 80 watts. Intel has closed the performance and performance per watt gap considerably, but it is likely that the Niagara chip will still have a substantial advantage. And, of course, Niagara-II will double the T1 threads to 64 from 32, which will boost performance considerably for many workloads. Niagara-II will be available by the end of 2007, but Intel plans to have its pseudo-quad-core "Cloverton" kickers to the Woodcrest chips (which basically puts two Woodcrest chips side-by-side in a single socket) available before the end of 2006.

No matter. FreeBSD will support both chips. So customers can choose what chip architecture they want.

Because the FreeBSD project knows people actually use its software in production, the members always keep two current versions of the operating system in support. FreeBSD 6.1 is the flagship release, which was put out in May alongside the legacy release, FreeBSD 5.5. FreeBSD 6.1, the last FreeBSD 4.X release, 4.11, was put out in January 2005. FreeBSD 6.1 is not a dramatic departure from FreeBSD 6.0, which was released in November 2005, but rather has a bunch of tweaks and bug fixes. FreeBSD 5.5 will very likely be the last of that legacy software, being so dramatically different from the FreeBSD 6 tree, which supports SAS and SATA disk drives now as well as a Unix kernel that can now scale across SMP servers and workstations better, and can support eight or more processors in a single system image. FreeBSD 6.X also sports a multithreaded file system, which speeds up data access on local disks, RAID arrays attached to a server, files stored on other machines accessed by Network File System (NFS), and data sets stored on storage area networks (SANs). FreeBSD, the project claims, can now outperform Linux when it comes to raw data throughput, so the gutting of the VFS and UFS file systems that helps both uniprocessor and SMP servers double the I/O performance on RAID arrays was clearly worth the trouble. FreeBSD 6.0 also includes "experimental" support for the PowerPC and Power processors, and 6.1 has experimental support for 64-bit Sparc chips. (In fact, Sun has given the FreeBSD project two Sparc T1000 servers and search engine giant Yahoo, which is FreeBSD's most famous and probably biggest user, has installed them for the project to use from its data centers.) The FreeBSD 6.1 distribution has over 14,000 applications on its CDs, which is just a staggering amount of software.

In early July, the FreeBSD foundation (which controls the fundraising operations of the FreeBSD project) added Java 2 Standard Edition (J2SE) binaries to FreeBSD 5.5 and 6.1 as part of their final roll outs. This Java update is based on the latest updates from Sun, which are at the 5.0 update 7 release level. FreeBSD 5.5 and 6.1 also support 64-bit Opteron and Athlon processors from Advanced Micro Devices, and enhanced support for older X86 iron.

The FreeBSD project is working on the Sparc T1 port now, and is also working to get the kernel scalability to the point where it can span 32 processors. According to a status report from the FreeBSD Foundation board, which was just re-elected, the port of Sun's DTrace system analysis tool is being ported into FreeBSD, and this work is almost finished. Search engine juggernaut Google also sponsored 14 students to work on FreeBSD projects in its Summer of Code program, too.

Over at the NetBSD project, the coders behind the project were early adopters the open source Xen virtual machine hypervisor from XenSource, and supported Xen 2.0 as a hypervisor within NetBSD. (The FreeBSD project is also working on a Xen port.) This week, the project announced NetBSD 3.0.1, the first security/critical patch release of its 3.0 tree, and also said that the Xen 3.0 hypervisor can work below NetBSD 3.0. This brings NetBSD on par with the new SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 from Novell, which was announced two weeks ago, and about six months ahead of where Red Hat will be with Xen support when--and if--it delivers its Enterprise Linux 5 update in December.

NetBSD runs on 17 processor types and 57 different system architectures, including X86, X64, Power, MIPS, Sparc, Super-H, ARM, VAX, Alpha, and other esoteric processors. NetBSD 3.0 was released just before Christmas last year, marking the eleventh major release of the NetBSD software. Xen support as well as the ability to have a file system larger than 2 TB were the main new features in NetBSD 3.0, but the release also included a lot of tweaks and tunings that made NetBSD that much more suitable for the kind of embedded applications where it is popular. NetBSD 3.0 comes with over 5,500 applications within its distribution.

In early May, the OpenBSD project released OpenBSD 3.9. The software is now able to run on some Apple G5-based Mac desktops, PCs, and servers. The OpenBSD 3.9 release supported new generations of IDE and SATA disk controllers and a wider variety of motherboard chipsets and disk controllers than the prior OpenBSD release. The OpenBSD 3.9 distribution includes over 3,000 applications that are ready to go.

One last thing: The great feature of all of the BSDs is that they have the ability, through sophisticated emulators and other software that project hackers have come up with or borrowed from other projects, to support Linux, Solaris, SunOS, and HP-UX binaries; some BSDs even go so far as to try to emulate AIX or Windows applications.


FreeBSD Puts Out Beta 4 of 5.5 and 6.1 Releases

NetBSD Unix Supports Xen Virtualization

SMP-Capable OpenBSD 3.6 Set for November

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Editors: Dan Burger, Timothy Prickett Morgan, Alex Woodie
Publisher and Advertising Director: Jenny Delroy
Advertising Sales Representative: Kim Reed
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