One of my pastimes is to mess about with computers. I used to (and still do) use Linux for the most part when I want to get something done (my desktop runs Linux, and most games I want to play run under WINE), but recently thanks to the overarching grasp of systemd, I’ve taken quite a shine to one of my previous loves, FreeBSD. If you don’t know much about these topics, then read on.
For those of you who aren’t into the whole computers thing, Linux is a backronym for Linux Is Not UniX – it’s a unix-like free (free as in speech, not as in beer, though some would dispute that) operating system. An operating system is what makes your computer ‘go’. Windows (or maybe even DOS – hello the rest of you oldtimers) is what most of you will be used to; windows is neither free as in speech nor as in beer, you paid for it when you bought your computer (you just didn’t notice, it’s a hidden tax for those of us who don’t want to use it). It’s widely used thanks to some smart maneuvering around thirty years ago by Microsoft and is adequate for most uses – it’s just not a very good server platform thanks to the architecture it’s built on (though 2kXX versions are vastly better than their predecessors, and are somewhat battle-tested and almost reliable). It is, however, expensive.
Most of my gaming is done on Linux through WINE (which lets me run certain windows programs on Linux), but the rest is currently done on my windows laptop. SteamOS will hopefully change all that, but that’s a post for another day.
Anyway, on to FreeBSD and Linux: UNIX is an operating system created a long time ago for computers which were a lot less powerful than most modern smartphones. It’s a multiuser system where many people share resources on the one computer (via a trick called multitasking), making one box vastly more useful in larger enterprises than single user systems like DOS (or older versions of Windows).
FreeBSD is an opensource BSD distribution of UNIX (BSD stands for Berkeley Standard Distribution). The history of how a version of a commercial operating system became free as in speech as well as free as in beer is a long one, but it involves the american government, DARPA and a lot of interested hackers. It’s used the world over and is well-known as a powerful, fast, flexible, stable and secure operating system.
Linux is not Unix. It’s unix-like, but the source code is entirely original. It started life as the hobby of a Finnish CS student who wanted an alternative to Minix (another unix-like free operating system) whilst he was waiting for the inevitable release of yet another operating system called Hurd, which was due to come out in ‘a few months’… several years (more than a decade) later and Herd was finally available, but not really all that relevant. But I digress (more than usual).
Linux is good – it’s large, powerful, chaotic… and also very stable and secure. Since it’s unix-like, it can run a lot of unix-compatible programs once they are compiled from source. Indeed, the majority of servers on the planet run linux because it is opensource, stable, secure and free (as in speech, not always as in beer).
FreeBSD is also good – it’s neater, more powerful and less chaotic, and arguably more stable and more secure because of the way that the base platform is developed along with the kernel (strictly speaking, Linux is just a kernel, the userspace programs are usually GNU – the kernel is the heart of an operating system, and Gnu’s Not Unix (yet another backronym (recursion is a computer thing))).
That’s not to say that FreeBSD is always better, but in certain cases it can be. I’ll talk more about that – and systemd – in a later post, but for now, I’m going to finish up with saying that I’m really rather happy with FreeBSD as a server OS. there’s nothing from Linux that I miss, not even virtual machines, thanks to BSD Jails.
If you want your computer to do more stuff than just run games – if you want to develop and run network services like media servers, file servers, email and webservers, databases and more, then you either should or more likely already have taken a look at linux and unix.
If you’ve got a powerful enough computer, you can probably run a virtual machine of these if you’re interested – I would suggest virtualbox as a free, powerful and relatively stable virtual machine manager. Give it a go, you might surprise yourself.