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Boardwatch Magazine: FreeBSD 4.0 and Beyond

By Jeffrey Carl, Boardwatch
Magazine

Jordan Hubbard Interview on Improvements, New Platforms and
What’s to Come

By the time you read this, I will be dead. Just kidding. By the
time you read this, FreeBSD 4.0 should be out – or close to it. So,
what’s the big deal? And why should you upgrade to it, or use it as
a convenient excuse to switch to FreeBSD?

THE SHORT VERSION OF THE STORY

A quick recap for the new students in class: FreeBSD is a free
version of the BSD Unix operating system (and one that claims to
have roughly 30 percent market share of ISPs). BSD Unix is
descended from the original AT&T Unix code currently maintained
by SCO. When BSD grew up, moved out of the house for good and broke
away from the dysfunctional Ma Bell family, FreeBSD emerged,
originally dedicated to enhancing the performance of BSD servers on
Intel-compatible (x86) hardware.

FreeBSD began a relatively rapid growth and adoption phase, at
least inside the ISP/Web hosting markets. FreeBSD’s developers
concentrated on developing and optimizing for the hardware they
were using – which was largely x86 servers, SCSI drives and other
server-centric (rather than home-user centric) equipment. As a
result, they developed (arguably) the highest public profile of the
free BSD Unixes, building a list of users that included Yahoo!, the
world’s busiest FTP server (ftp .cdrom.com) and Hotmail.

However, from seemingly out of nowhere, Linux exploded onto the
scene and left all other free Unixes behind. Although BSD Unix had
been around for years, as far as most of the world was concerned,
Linux was it.

By 1998, FreeBSD was at its lowest ebb. Linux – through its open
development model and focus on end-user hardware – had long since
become the free Unix for legions of old and new hackers worldwide.
Linux advocacy was loud, assertive, got press attention, and, as a
result, Linux stepped into the public limelight while the BSDs were
Unix ‘crazy old aunt up in the attic.’ Finding the old O’Reilly
books on 4.4 BSD Unix – let alone finding a mention of BSD in the
press – was harder than putting lipstick on a chicken. Fortunately,
FreeBSD seemed to learn something from the experience.

THE FALL AND RISE OF FreeBSD

Jordan Hubbard works for Walnut Creek CD-ROM (ftp.cdrom.com),
which sells FreeBSD, Linux and other Open Source distributions.
He’s also the current release engineer for FreeBSD, and its
unofficial PR guy. Known as ‘jkh’ by legions of FreeBSD devotees,
he’s also responsible for /stand/sysinstall and other
user-interface niceties of FreeBSD, as well as legions of other
internal enhancements.

In his 1999 FreeBSD ‘State of the Union’ address, Hubbard
indicated – like Steve Jobs before him – that he understood the
technical superiority of an operating system alone did not
guarantee its success – it took PR and user help. He said FreeBSD’s
upgrades would henceforth come in tenth decimals, rather than
hundreds, so the public and press would take more notice.
Furthermore, he actively called on FreeBSD users to advocate for
their OS.

The FreeBSD core team had fortunately learned from the divisive
standards wars Unix had undergone (and they were a part of).
FreeBSD would work with Linux rather than against it. Recognizing
Linux as a sort of de facto API for free Unix applications, FreeBSD
would include compatibility for Linux, rather than insist on
developers writing their applications for one OS or the other.
Smart move.

Since that time, FreeBSD has enjoyed a significant growth in
popular support, has been the subject of articles on MSNBC and in
Salon, the subject of a special section on Slash-dot and
experienced a surge in downloads. Darwin, the Open Source base of
Apple’s forthcoming MacOS X, will have its future releases tied to
FreeBSD. Even better, FreeBSD now has its own yearly tradeshow –
FreeBSDcon, showing strong signs of the growth in its support.

I ran into Jordan Hubbard at ISPCON when I stopped by the
FreeBSD booth to see if anyone could tell me whether one of the
core team members would be at the conference for me to interview.
There was Hubbard. The result was much like going to CompUSA to buy
a copy of Slackware and finding Linus Torvalds in a red shirt,
explaining it was in aisle six. I fumbled and stuttered that I
needed to go grab my iBook laptop, and I’d come back and interview
him, and P.S., I thought he was so cool. He turned to my friend
Namita who came with me and asked, “Is he always this smooth?”
Anyway, this interview is the result of that meeting and a couple
of e-mail follow-ups:

Q & A WITH JORDAN HUBBARD

Carl: When can we expect to see FreeBSD
4.0?

Hubbard: Sometime in the January to February
time frame. We’ll enter feature freeze for the 4.0 branch on
December 15, after which we’ll take about 30 days to stabilize the
branch.

Carl: What are the new architectures
FreeBSD will be coming to?

Hubbard: Well, we’re working on several fronts.
First, we’re working with Compaq right now on Alpha SMP (Symmetric
Multi-Processing, or multiple CPUs) support (for which Compaq has
kindly sent us almost $300,000 worth of miscellaneous hardware) and
hope to have something working there by first quarter 2000. We’ve
also started a PowerPC port with the Power Macintosh G3 as our
initial reference platform, but there are no firm dates on when
that will be available. If all goes well, we should also see some
significant work on the UltraSPARC port coming into the tree around
the same time (Q1 2000).

Carl: Does branching out to more
architectures mean you’re changing your focus? Does this mean
anything to the speed or quality of x86 development?

Hubbard: We’re not really changing our focus so
much as simply leveraging the much more significant developer
assets we now have available, many of whom want to work on non-x86
platforms, so why not let them? I also don’t expect this to affect
the x86 development work in any way since the lion’s share of our
developers will still be working on that platform and we have
enough extra people now that we can do both.

The only reason we’ve focused exclusively on the x86 platform to
date is that we didn’t feel we had the resources to do a really
good job there and tackle other architectures. However, we’re at
least three times the size we were when we made that initial
determination. I think it’s now more than possible for us to do a
good job on at least four major architectures, especially since
such work tends to ‘amortize’ due to similarities in those various
platforms. For example, the PCI bus is an increasingly common
interface standard, and just about everyone offers USB.

I think going cross-platform is simply an inevitable aspect of
our evolution, and the Alpha port has allowed us to stay more
‘honest’ with respect to FreeBSD’s architectural dependencies.

Carl: How important do you see ISPs, Web
hosters, etc., as a constituency? What are you working on
adding/improving that might be of special interest to them or might
constitute a reason (aside from the already-existing reasons) for
ISPs to use FreeBSD?

Hubbard: We see ISPs, NSPs and the SOHO market
as very important parts of our constituency, and we intend to work
on a number of issues will make FreeBSD more attractive to them. In
no particular order, those are:

  • Pervasive multi-threading (in the kernel)
  • Fine-grained SMP resource-locking
  • Clustering (on a variety of fronts)
  • RAID controllers and other large-scale data storage
    systems
  • Embedded systems support (more picoBSD work)
  • Serious security auditing and more built-in security subsystems
    (K5, IPSec, openSSH, etc.)
  • Fiber channel support
  • Gigabit (and faster) networking (already works, but we’ll be
    also working on zero-copy TCP and other performance features)
  • IPv6 and IPSec (both slated 4.0)
  • Better multimedia support (3-D cards, audio, video capture,
    etc).

We’re also working with a number of vendors, like Oracle, to bring
their products to the FreeBSD market and are getting far more
support for this than we used to. Things are definitely looking up
in that category, and we hope to have some significant
announcements by the end of the month.

Carl: How would you define the mission of
FreeBSD now?

Hubbard: I’d say it’s much the same as it
always was: Provide robust, high-performance BSD technology in a
form that is accessible to the ‘mass market’ by being easy to
install and configure and by offering better documentation. It has
never been our intention to be just another academic resource,
BSD’s traditional niche; we want to give Solaris, NT and Linux a
run for their money (in that order).

Carl: What advancements in
ease-of-administration will people see in 4.0? What about
directions for the future?

Hubbard: More easy-to-turn knobs in places like
/etc/rc.conf and more tools for manipulating those knobs in a
friendly fashion, to put it in a nutshell. Future directions
include making kernels truly generic, in that you don’t have to
configure your own any more; you just have one kernel, which
dynamically extends itself as necessary. It will still be possible
to configure and run static non-self-extending kernels if necessary
for security or other reasons, but this shouldn’t be necessary for
the average user.

We’re also putting more time into configuration interfaces and
fancier GUI front ends for those things, which makes clear sense to
give the user a ‘friendlier face.’

Carl: When might FreeBSD’s planned
new-threads architecture (the proposed mix of kernel-level and
user-level threads I’ve read a bit about in freebsd-arch) make its
way into stable? What benefits will ISP/server users see?

Hubbard: Version 4.0 is our current target for
the new-threads feature-set. ISPs should see the ability to
multi-thread applications like mysql in such a way that a single
process can take advantage of multiple CPUs, unlike the one process
per CPU model we have now, and we’ll have more POSIX compliant
thread behavior for people porting applications from other
platforms.

IN CONCLUSION

Jordan Hubbard indicated that FreeBSD might soon be giving
OpenBSD a run for its money as the ‘secure’ BSD. Hubbard also
alluded to – but wouldn’t give any specifics on – a potential ‘big
name’ player offering commercial support for FreeBSD. By the time
you read this, this name may have come to light; if not, we’ll just
have to wait and see. However, it appears that FreeBSD is very much
on an upswing right now.

Is FreeBSD 4 a ‘must-upgrade’? Probably not right away, since
its advances are evolutionary rather than quantum. Nonetheless, if
you’re using FreeBSD now, you’ll want to upgrade soon – if the new
features and improvements aren’t enough, consider that bug and
security fixes always come fastest for the most recent version.

Having watched the rise, fall and rebirth of Apple, I think I
know an OS in resurgence when I see one. FreeBSD is definitely on
the track to resurgence. It will be a long, hard road – but I think
all of us looking for a free Unix with optimum performance and
usability will benefit.