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Report from Comdex--Walnut Creek CDROM, FreeBSD and Slackware

Nov 20, 1998, 00:05 (66 Talkback[s])

by Dwight Johnson

Las Vegas, November 19. Situated strategically at the head of the Linux Pavilion and accessible from two aisles, the Walnut Creek CDROM booth is the first stopping place for the throngs of technophiles flooding thru.

Manning the booth, Patrick Volkerding, the original compiler of Slackware Linux, spoke to me about his product. Slackware Linux, as published by Walnut Creek on CDROM, was the first Linux distribution to achieve mass distribution and is still the favorite among many of the more experienced Linux systems administrators who are looking for a Linux that can be easily customized.

For those users who are just starting out with Linux, a distribution such as S.u.S.E. is very good because it is very easy to install, all the applications are preconfigured to work out of the box and they can be easily customized further using the YaST configuration tool.

Slackware Linux is also easy to install and use but there is far less preconfiguration. This has notable advantages for experienced Linux administrators who are often actually hampered by a lot of preconfiguration and are just as likely to tear it out in order to build their boxes to do exactly what they want done the way they want it done.

For these users, Slackware is a better choice.

When I mentioned S.u.S.E., Volkerding noted that S.u.S.E. was originally a German version of Slackware and he had provided technical support to the developers.

This was news to me and I mentioned to Patrick that I had helped S.u.S.E. with marketing their 5.3 product by editing the English language text of the S.u.S.E. users guide.

But S.u.S.E. 5.3 is vastly different from Slackware. I think of it as the Mercedes of Linux distributions, meticulously engineered with many refinements and luxury features.

Slackware is more like a race car, all performance, and the seats may be a little hard when you first sit down, but in the hands of the skilled driver, watch out.

I asked Patrick about package management. This was the main complaint leveled against Slackware that gave Red Hat its marketing impetus with its Red Hat Package Manager (RPM). The use of RPM has subsequently spread to the Caldera, S.u.S.E. and TurboLinux distributions.

Patrick said he thought this was a marketing trick used by Red Hat to proprietize its product. He showed me how to manage packages with Slackware 3.6 using ordinary text-based UNIX utilities on his laptop. I was quite impressed to see him easily get the same results that I was accustomed to getting using RPM.

If you need to upgrade applications to the latest release between distributions, you will find some inconvenience using RPM, because nearly every application is first packaged by its maintainer as a tar.gz file, the format Slackware uses natively for its packages, and it requires an experienced RPM package maintainer to build it into an RPM package. As an alternative, you may wait until an experienced RPM maintainer releases an upgrade RPM or you may learn RPM packaging yourself.

This inconvenience could be another reason to prefer Slackware.

On the opposite aisle in the Walnut Creek CDROM booth, Michael Smith was hawking FreeBSD.

With all the hoopla about Linux, FreeBSD is another product you may not take notice of when you first become interested in Linux. But if your interests take you in the direction of the greatest reliability and performance on an Intel platform, you will hear about it.

FreeBSD is the OS of preference for many of the most highly trafficked sites on the Internet today, including:

  • Altavista, their firewall
  • Hotmail, over 400 machines
  • YAHOO!, over 100 machines
  • LinkExchange, over 60 machines

Walnut Creek CDROM runs its FTP server, which is the world's largest and busiest, on FreeBSD. The Walnut Creek server downloads 750GB a day and can maintain 3,600 simultaneous connections on a single 200 MHz Pentium Pro machine with 1GB RAM and 500GB of RAID storage.

Another reason for choosing FreeBSD is the Berkeley License. This is a much less restrictive free license than the GPL and appeals to companies who want to directly integrate proprietary software with the OS kernel.

Several companies using FreeBSD in this way are:

  • Whistle Communications Corp. with their Whistle Interjet, an all-in-one solution appliance that provides e-mail, Web access and Web publishing productivity for everyone in your small office of up to 100 people
  • Global Technology Associates, Inc., makers of GTA, a firewall product imbedded in the FreeBSD kernel
  • Cybernet Systems, makers of NetMAX, an integrated Web site and network server you administer through your Web browser

FreeBSD is maintained over the Internet by a loose-knit team of 200 developers. Many of these developers are paid by their companies to participate in development of the OS.

The FreeBSD distribution on four CDROMS includes most of the same applications and utilities as a Linux distribution, including the large collection of GNU tools. What is unique is the FreeBSD kernel, its license and its development team.

An optional component to the FreeBSD system is the book, The Complete FreeBSD, 2nd Ed.. This book touts itself as an indispensible reference in 1700 pages, from first-time installation to day-to-day administration.

I only had an opportunity to glance through it in the booth, but I was impressed with its clear and concise organization. I opened to one chapter, nameserver setup, a process that has long mystified me, for a slightly deeper look and was extremely impressed with how quickly it cut to the chase of the process.

Tomorrow, November 20, will be Comdex's last day. So much to write about; so little time.