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FreeBSD -- Is it the perfect Internet server operating system? As close as it comes.

By ServerWatch Staff (Send Email)
Posted Jun 5, 2002


The best way to judge FreeBSD, a faithful implementation of BSD UNIX 4.4 for the PC architecture, is to look at who uses it and under what circumstances - and the FreeBSD list has its share of heavyweights:

  • Yahoo uses FreeBSD and Apache to power one of the most popular Web servers on the Internet.
  • The MP3.com Web site uses FreeBSD and Apache to serve pages and mp3 music files.
  • Microsoft uses FreeBSD -- not Windows NT -- to power its Hotmail electronic-mail servers.

Now, to be fair to Microsoft, the software giant does indeed use Windows NT and IIS for most of its corporate site's Web servers (www.microsoft.com), and the usage of FreeBSD and Apache represents only a small portion of the Microsoft Internet empire. Still, if FreeBSD is good enough for Bill Gates (on some small level) and the folks at Yahoo (on a much larger scale), it should be good enough for your Web server, whether you're implementing an small business intranet or an enterprise-level Web server devoted to electronic commerce. Why is FreeBSD such a popular choice for industrial-grade Web serving, even though it's an operating system built to run on Intel-based PCs? Bottom line? It's because FreeBSD is known for having one of the fastest TCP/IP stacks in the operating-system world. The best way to judge FreeBSD, a faithful implementation of BSD UNIX 4.4 for the PC architecture, is to look at who uses it and under what circumstances - and the FreeBSD list has its share of heavyweights.

FreeBSD or Linux?

There is the temptation to lump FreeBSD together with Linux. And, indeed, there are a number of similarities between the two operating systems -- software developed for one operating system can easily be moved to the other operating system (or run directly, now that most Linux distributions and FreeBSD feature iBCS compatibility), and much of Linux's networking capabilities come from BSD sources. Both work in roughly the same way, following UNIX conventions in terms of file locations filesystem structures. Both use the X Window System for graphics (and both will support Motif and CDE with third-party software), both use many of the same tools from the Free Software Foundation (including gcc) and in general if a software vendor supports Linux they will support FreeBSD as well.

However, FreeBSD was built from the beginning as a version of the Cal-Berkeley BSD -- 4.4BSD-Lite -- and as such has serious roots in "West Coast" UNIX. This isn't true of Linux, which began life more as a pure UNIX workalike with some serious System V biases and it didn't contain any source code from an existing UNIX distribution. In addition, because FreeBSD was built for heavy-duty networking from the get go (Blue Mountain Arts, creators of the popular Internet site of the same name, handles 1,000 requests per second using FreeBSD), it can handle the high-traffic situations that Linux (and Windows NT) cannot.

There is one other crucial difference between FreeBSD and Linux: the licensing model. In general, the FreeBSD team uses a less-restrictive license requiring that source code accompany changes in the operating system. Linux, by comparison, has a license that requires that altered source code as well as the original source code be shipped to users.

FreeBSD can also be used in a variety of Internet situations outside of pure Web serving, especially in situations where security is a paramount consideration. Internally, there's kernel support for IP firewalling and IP proxy gateways, which makes FreeBSD very suited to be your firewall operating system. In addition, FreeBSD supports secure shells, Kerberos authentication, end-to-end encryption and secure RPC facilities.

Summary

New in version 3.2 is better support for PCI-based gigabit Ethernet adapters, USB devices, direct access to NTFS file systems, and the Joliet extensions on ISO-9660 filesystems.

There are several great Web servers that ship in FreeBSD binaries. FreeBSD itself ships with the Apache Web server. In addition, the Zeus Web server is available in a FreeBSD version.

FreeBSD can be used with good results on an intranet or corporate network, coexisting well with other operating systems. Samba is third-party open-source software that provides file-sharing and print services to Windows 95 and Windows NT clients.

FreeBSD also includes a PC-NFS authentication daemon that supports machines running PC/NFS. There are some limitations when evaluating FreeBSD, however. Software-vendor support for FreeBSD isn't as widespread as it is for Windows NT, Sun Solaris or even Linux, especially in the e-commerce and application-server fields. While this is a concern, it's not necessarily the most important concern when looking at a platform for a Web server.

Could you do better than FreeBSD on the operating-system front? At this time, no -- built for speed and networking, FreeBSD combines a full set of open-source tools (like Apache) with a solid base to provide the best pure Web serving on the Internet.

Pros: 7 Built for networking from the ground up; conforms to BSD-style UNIX conventions; license is less restrictive.

Cons: 7 Lack of third-party applications in the e-commerce and application-server fields.

New in v3.2: Release Notes
Upgrade Meter: 4

Version Reviewed: 3.2
Reviewed by: Kevin Reichard
Last Updated: 6/26/02
Date of Original Review: 5/21/99

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