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NetBSD, for When Portability and Stability Matter

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NetBSD: Ultra-portable and stable Unix variant of the *BSD operating system family

If portability tops your list of critical OS requirements, NetBSD may be for you. The Unix OS is aimed at organizations looking for a slim and stable platform that makes it possible to run the latest server apps on modest or specialized hardware.

The BSD family tree is almost biblical in lineage. The original BSD begat 2BSD, which begat 4.3BSD, which begat 386BSD, which begat FreeBSD and NetBSD, which begat OpenBSD. Or something like that. The actual diagram of BSD history may look like a Rorschach test, but there are currently three major flavors of BSD actively developed and used: FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD. Technically, one could argue Apple’s OS X is a fourth BSD family OS, but it is a special case.

NetBSD, like the other two BSD flavors, is available as a free download. You can download the installation packages individually or as ISO format files suitable for burning onto a bootable CDR. The base installation of NetBSD with a minimal system weighs in at about 120 MB when downloaded. Add-ons abound, however. For the i386 flavor of NetBSD as many as six additional CDs of extra packages are available to enhance NetBSD. One distribution, NetBSD Live, runs directly off the CD itself. You can download these ISO images freely or you can buy full sets from third-party vendors at nominal prices.

If, for example, OpenBSD is the paranoid uncle who stands in the corner at the family reunion suspicious of all the guests, NetBSD is the gregarious cousin who gets along with everybody.

A minimal NetBSD install requires less than 100 MB of disk space. Of course, more is always better, particularly if you plan to add packages or swap space for memory. The base NetBSD installation includes very few applications. The installation “wizard” is text-based but includes menus with sensible on-screen documentation. NetBSD assumes some familiarity with administrative tasks (e.g., partitioning a hard disk), but its menu-oriented approach helps you through the process. It even recommends settings for the typical situation.

So, what specifically differentiates NetBSD from its brethren? All of the BSDs are slightly different flavors of the same basic dish. If, for example, OpenBSD is the paranoid uncle who stands in the corner at the family reunion suspicious of all the guests, NetBSD is the gregarious cousin who gets along with everybody. OpenBSD was designed with security in mind, which is not to say NetBSD is insecure. Out of the box it’s designed not to leave your system vulnerable, and it doesn’t take risky chances.

In keeping with the metaphor, NetBSD’s claim to fame is its high portability — it will run on more than 50 hardware platforms ranging, from the Commodore Amiga to PlayStation 2 to everything in between. If you can get your hands on the hardware, there is probably a NetBSD port available for it.

This wide portability has gained NetBSD the reputation of being an ideal operating system for research environments. Organizations with older or marginalized or just plain unusual hardware systems can continue to make use of them for present-day work by installing NetBSD. Since NetBSD can run many Unix-like applications and is binary compatible with Linux, a wide variety of systems that might otherwise be obsolete are still breathing.

Stability and scalability are among NetBSD’s other strengths. Being portable to so many systems demands these capabilities. In a recent scalability benchmark, the current NetBSD release performed better than its BSD kin and nearly as well as the new Linux 2.6 kernel, which topped the rankings. Unlike the comparably heftier Linux, though, NetBSD can squeeze down to fit into a huge variety of hardware environments.

In NetBSD’s sweet spot are organizations looking for a slim, lightweight, highly stable, and capable operating system to run the latest server applications on modest or specialized hardware.

Pros: Lightweight; Very stable; Wide platform support; Good scalability.
Cons: Not for the novice admin; Leans toward clean design over “cutting-edge” features; Smaller development community than other Unix operating systems.

Reviewed by: Aaron Weiss
Original Review Date: 10/27/2004
Original Review Version: 1.6.2

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