Choosing a System

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System landscape

Several systems developed and maintained by communities of volunteer developers derive from 4.4BSD (Berkeley System Distribution). Among these, NetBSD ported Unix on many different hardware architectures, OpenBSD developed security and cryptography, and FreeBSD focused on installation ergonomy and performance.

Compared to the BSDs, the Linux situation is slightly different as Linux is not a system, but a kernel developed from scratch by Linus Torvalds and a loosely-knit team of hackers across the Net. GNU/Linux distributions complement the kernel with package systems and GPL-licensed Open Source software gathered from the Internet. Some well-known distributions are RedHat (commercial), Centos (free variant of RedHat), Debian (volunteer project) but there are many many more.

Among all these distributions, one is particularly well documented, organized, and adapted to server and educational usage : Slackware Linux. This will be the one referred to when discussing Linux later in this guide. Slackware Linux is a highly technical distribution. It uses a simple, text-based installer and a basic package management system that does not handle software dependancies. All configuration work is done by editing text files. This simplicity also means that some post-installation activity is sometimes required to make recent desktop software work.

Which system is best ?

There is no unique answer to this question as it actually depends on what you want to do. After testing OpenBSD, FreeBSD and Slackware Linux a few versions ago, here are a few findings :

Topic OpenBSD FreeBSD Linux
Partitionning The OpenBSD and FreeBSD disklabel system is not simple as it is necessary to compute partition sizes in sectors (1 sector = 512 bytes). Partitionning is easier with Linux but requires an additional swap partition.
Installation Very quick for a base OpenBSD system : less than 15 minutes. Sendmail and Apache are included. Much longer for FreeBSD and Linux. X configuration is now automatic so should not be a problem anylonger for either system.
Device management Good management of my CardBus network board and my wheel mouse in OpenBSD and Linux. No CardBus device in FreeBSD 5.1, wheel mouse configuration obtained after deep documentation reading, installation and configuration of a specific program.
Documentation The OpenBSD man pages and online help are excellent and remarkably concise but you need to already need to know your topic. The FreeBSD Documentation is richer and more educational. Slackware also gathered a good documentation.
Kernel compilation Easy for OpenBSD and FreeBSD (only one file to modify), no bad surprise at reboot. For Linux on the contrary, options are modified in a hierarchical menu with hundreds of choices sometimes interrelated. Chances for successful reboot are somewhat low, and even if (which is unlikely anyway) the new kernel is functional, its chances to be compatible with the rest of the distribution are also low. Foresee several trials before success.
Performance OpenBSD memory usage is very low. 24 Megs with all the services. For Linux with KDE that's around 512 Megs. For FreeBSD between the two. FreeBSD is very fast. This is probably why some major Internet providers (Yahoo and others) use it for their websites.
Reliability OpenBSD, FreeBSD, Slackware are all stable.
Driver availability Better for Linux and for FreeBSD. Few device manufacturers think about OpenBSD when writing drivers.
Security This is OpenBSD raison d'être : code audit, creation of security software (OpenSSH, IPVpn, …), gathering of all configuration files in a single place, gathering of all chrooted application files in a single tree, system audit scripts, etc. Even if OpenBSD has smaller development ressources, what it brings to the community is later reused by the other systems.

To sum up in a few words, OpenBSD is secure, simple and consistent. FreeBSD is fast, Linux is feature rich !
So if security comes first, use OpenBSD, if performance comes first, use FreeBSD, and if functional-wealth comes first, then use Linux :-) !

Why not Windows ?

Compared to Windows and other proprietary systems, Open Source systems have a few advantages :

  • They afford easy access to technology and make learning easy
  • They are well adapted to the Internet technologies
  • They afford better controlling your machine
  • They are freely usable and with a low cost
  • They are extensively documented
  • They are incredibly rich

They are certainly more difficult to master, less intuitive, less consistent, even more chaotic.
However the overall balance remains favourable putting in place server services,
So let's not delay any longer and let's get down to it …

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