Report from Comdex–Walnut Creek CDROM, FreeBSD and Slackware

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

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

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

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
    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
  • Global Technology Associates,
    , makers of GTA, a firewall product imbedded in the FreeBSD
  • 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.

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