Mar 03, 2023
Over the past 4 months I have been running various BSDs on my daily machine and I have to say I love it. I am coming from Gentoo Linux as a bit of background and I have been using Linux for about 5 years full time now, so I am writing with a decent amount of UNIX-Like experience. This will be mostly a discussion comparing BSD to Linux and what I like about and dislike about the various BSDs by itself.
For those looking for a TLDR (To Long Didn't Read) I will be sticking with OpenBSD for the time being and if something doesn't work out I will be looking to move back to FreeBSD or Gentoo. I think BSD is amazing and the changes over Linux are worth making the switch.
If you are currently running on macOS or Windows you may be thinking you might need to run Linux before trying out BSD this is not the case at all. It more or less depends on how much work your willing to put into switching, BSD install process is not complex but it is more hands on and to someone who may be less tech literate than others using a TUI (Terminal User Interface) or CLI (Command Line Interface) based installers may seem scary, they are not, do not be afraid of these things. I would recommend trying FreeBSD as opposed to something like Ubuntu as FreeBSD can do like 99% of what Linux can do and is a lighter OS with less garbage like systemd or snap packages. FreeBSD has a great writeup on how to install from scratch with PICTURES! as well as a command line guide for basic commands and how to install a Desktop interface (as you have many options unlike macOS/Windows). You can find the Handbook here - https://docs.freebsd.org/en/books/handbook/introduction/
This is a great question the short answer is that it probably doesn't. If your someone who just uses a computer and doesn't care about how it works then it probably isn't going to matter. If your actively looking to improve your development environment even macOS is a good option over windows as it comes with an actual shell unlike Windows command line. If your starting to say to yourself I want to run something open source that not only myself but others can audit the code and make sure it's safe. Then your starting to look into Linux and BSD. What is most important is does your current OS do what you want it to do? If not then you probably don't need to change it. If your looking to move to all open source software maybe try using the applications on your OS first. Apps like GoDot, Krita, KdenLive, LibreOffice are available for many different OSes. If these tools aren't going to work for you chances are BSD or Linux won't either.
Linux has all these modern hip applications and all these different package management systems and so many distros to choose from why even consider BSD? Well the issue with "distros" on Linux is they aren't really doing anything (no offense devs...). Most distros are merely a fork of someone else design for example Debian and Ubuntu both use the same package manager both work very similar, so where is the difference? The packages that come preinstalled on the distro that can range from a different Desktop Environment (DE) to pre-installed packages/configs on the machine ready to use right after install.
Not all Linux distros are made this way but a majority of them are. So why should you install one over the other? Well the whole point in the creators minds is that it makes everything work the way you want it out of the box. For 80-90% that's probably not the case though which make basically every distro a waste of not only the creators time but also adds to the complexity of the space.
So what's the difference with the Linux distros that aren't forks? These distros actually develop something rather than manage a package repo. These distros have new package managers new init systems and in some cases like Gentoo completely different ways of doing things from the majority. Here is a full list of all the Linux distros you will notice a majority fork off from another project but even still there are a decent maybe 10% ish are standalone distros without forks.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Linux_distributions
However even with the new package managers most of these distros are still the same thing. They have designed a new package management system which might be easier to use or they have some new feature like the AUR. However only maybe 1% of distros are actually doing something unique. Gentoo, Bedrock, KISS, Nix, Chimera and maybe even Void. These guys are using the Linux Kernel like the other distros but actually are different. Maybe that means they are straying from the GNU Code base, using a new C library and the list goes on. If your not looking at these distros the experience you will have on Linux is going to be mostly the same, even something like Fedora (RedHat Based) to Mint (Debian Based) is going to feel like the same thing. Not all forks are useless some like PopOS for example are making their own Desktop's which is cool.
Linux is very confusing it's the first question everyone asks "what distro do I install?" There's even guides (bad) on this topic in a quick search. BSD doesn't have this issue you have many variations of BSD which you can find at the link below.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_BSD_operating_systems
Now that may seem like a lot and it is but there are really only 4 main BSDs that comes up in conversation maybe 5. You may not even have heard of any besides the largest one FreeBSD. So what's the difference here? FreeBSD is designed to run everything like Linux does and can even emulate Linux actually. This is more your mainstream BSD this where over 70% answered to a survey in 2005 saying they use FreeBSD. This is probably where most users want to be as eveything is most likely to work like they want. OpenBSD is more based around security of course but not just that it's more code correctness, I personally really like the goals of this project however you will encounter many issues that you will probably need to fix yourself and some software doesn't even work that may work on other BSDs for example. NetBSD focus is around bringing BSD to every possible platform, this is probably not what you think it is it doesn't mean the latest GPUs and stuff but more in the sense of architectures. For example POWERPC or ARM and those 2 are just minor in comparison to the list of platforms they support feel free to check out their site it's incredible honestly. If you had a PowerMac you will know a lot of Linux distros dropped support for it you might be worried FreeBSD will drop support for example next this makes NetBSD a very compelling option. The downside of this is the dev team is focused on so many platforms without enough devs it's tough to add modern support for things or even bug fixes. DragonFly BSD main focus is speed the hardware is really lacking it may not work for you at the time of writing at least however it's really cool to just reading their home page will tell you so much about what's different, worth the read.
The next major difference as you have probably realized by now is unlike Linux distros which are mostly all the same core packages, BSD is it's own complete system each BSD is different from each other. BSDs do use each others code from time to time to add a feature but personally I think this needs to be done more often to get modern hardware supported quickly. What do you gain from a complete system? Well besides the huge differences in each BSD this allows the project to offer a more stable system than Linux (no really!), not only that it allows for the system to be more optimized at the base level working with everything nicely because well.. it was designed to around using each piece of that base. So why is it more stable? It's a pretty bold claim this may not be true for the bleeding edge of hardware however when your able to make sure everything works with each other nothing should ever break but besides that the system updates as a whole. Have you ever noticed Linux distros like Ubuntu have a release? This is because they update the GNU core utils among other system packages all at once. Linux is mainly designed around GNU software but try running musl notice the breakages even Clang/LLVM a few years back wouldn't compile everything I still don't think it does today. Some portable kernel huh... There is so much room for error from different parties trying make everything work together maybe Linux updates and GNU needs to patch something for it that comes a day later this kernel update could make something unstable it happens. When the OS is a complete system like BSD it doesn't happen unless your running -current.
Packages on Linux come from your main distro repo but not just that. You then need to trust other random people on the internet when using things like the AUR or even adding a new repo to your package manager because you can't find that package you need/want. This can be a huge security risk and BSD you don't need to do any of that. People praise the AUR but it's not that special when you think about it and I've used Arch for over a year. Meet BSDs Port system not only can you download binaries from a trusted source for your packages but you can also get direct access to the source code of those packages to compile them natively in your local ports tree. I will admit it's not as nice as Gentoo's portage as in the package manger doesn't directly support building the packages and they will need to be done manually like 99% of other Linux distros. FreeBSD does have a tool called Poudriere which can compile lots of ports for you in 1 command with the options you want. So who can manage ports? People approved by that BSD. Is it as good as the AUR? It terms of security it destroys it. In terms of total available packages FreeBSD is your best best at around half the packages as the AUR. Your more than welcome to join the ports team to manage packages you want to bring to the BSD this basically makes it the same as the capabilites of the AUR. The only real difference being the packages aren't supported yet because people aren't maintaining them.
Changes are actually discussed. Have you noticed something with Linux over the years that some things just don't make any sense? Take thishttps://www.phoronix.com/news/Linux-Retire-Itanium-IA64-Patch
So it's all good to add 500K lines of code for new GPUs but keeping 65K lines of code for older CPU support is bloat? That makes no sense. If anything we should be refining the driver code that's huge has to be a way to improve that. Well it's not that easy you might think or it's that size for a reason. Right check thishttps://github.com/openbsd/src/blob/master/bin/ls/ls.c
Same ls command on OpenBSD is 600 ish lines of code where as in the GNU core utils it's 5600 ish. That's an insane difference! It's like the code was just slapped together it works good enough never touch it again. i386 support was already dropped in Linux as well as i486 recently I think... now Itanium? These are not massive savings and if you think it's bloat the support isn't even compiled in the kernel on your OS as it's for a different architecture. I do want to say I get where the development team is coming from it does talk developer resources to maintain, it's the same issue I mentioned with NetBSD above. I do think though it should be added a secondary type of system no system should every not be supported on Linux with the amount of developers they have. I come from a biased opinion on this as I enjoy using old hardware and seeing what modern tasks it can handle.
This brings me into my next point proper clean code. Things get looked at multiple times on BSD. How can this be lighter/cleaner? On Linux it feels like slap something together pray it works an never touch it until it breaks, It's just horrible development design. This isn't just an issue with Linux but GNU as well which is what most distros are using.
In 2020 the Linux kernel had 27.8 million lines of code. That is huge! This is just the kernel not including all the utils or Xorg, etc. For comparison another bloated project is web browsers with Chrome coming in at a whopping 35 million lines. A project like OpenBSD has 33.8 million lines of code at the time of writing and that includes an Xorg server as well as like 5 pre installed Window Managers (WM). Not to mention it's entire complete system all the utils, compilers, etc. Code size is not the be all end all either though Linux supports more devices which one could argue explains it's code size however it does seem rather large in comparison.
The topic people either care a lot about or not at all. I'm going to cover this briefly the BSD license allows anyone to take the code and does not require the project to be open sourced to use it unlike the GPL. It is a very short and concise license unlike the GPL. I don't have any issues with GPL licensed code personally however I disagree with the philosophy behind it. I understand the argument that BSD licensed code can and has been used in macOS as well as windows and probably even more closed source software but I think this is actually a good thing.
Hear me out if you create a standard for something isn't it better for everyone else to use that same standard library or package for ease of use across different platforms? Take for example zsh imagine if you couldn't use this natively on macOS like bash because of a license. Just sounds stupid... OpenSSH is BSD licensed and is able to be used by default on closed source OSes imagine if it wasn't... Microsoft and Apple may have may their own standard applications for both, sounds like a serious pain. GCC isn't used on macOS either Clang/LLVM is over again licensing issues so now your losing out on a huge company auditing your code because they use it, that's some huge support your losing over a license.
That's all I want to say on licenses there's really not much else to say. If you believe everything should be open sourced like GNU then the GPL is for you. It's a great idea but unrealistic.
Documentation can be really good or really bad depending on how you look at it. On all the BSDs you are basically required to read man the man pages which is as simple as running the "man" and then the command you wish to run however you can also use the -k flag to help find the command you may need. However this is not the be all end all in my opinion sometimes having a full guide on how to setup poudriere or some other more complex task. FreeBSD does handle this quite well in my opinion the best out of all the BSDs, the handbook they provide for installation and post installation is amazing and they have many guides for setting things up like bhyve as well as poudriere which is a pro. Other systems like OpenBSD do have a FAQ section which is useful for many things that need a guide however once you pass these 2 BSDs it's not great. NetBSD there is no documentation to even setup SLiM and yes I tried slim_enable="yes" or whatever in my config file, it's not in the manpage either basic stuff like this should be documented. NetBSD has a documentation section for quite a few things which could be good but some other important things are still missing.
Overall documentation is great the manpages are great haven't had any real major issues it's more just a different mind set, instead of say doing a search when you have an issue you read the manpages for that application instead to understand what you want it to do.
Now this is an interesting topic, for starters many people bash The FreeBSD Foundation because some of the core members of the foundation use macbooks as their daily drivers. I think the foundation is not so much the devs some might be but I would say the foundation is more in charge of marketing and financial type of stuff so it's not a big deal.
The other big issue I want to talk about is NDAs and how well OpenBSD guys handle NDAs, they have a policy to not sign any NDAs. Other BSDs like FreeBSD Foundation does sign NDAs but some of the core devs don't so it's really up in the air to what changes some of these BSDs can make. The issue with NDAs is they are not legally allowed to talk or make changes for the things they are signing about. The problem is the divide between the devs if the foundation signs an NDA and they say in their own words "The Foundation also represents the FreeBSD Project in executing contracts, license agreements, and other legal arrangements that require a recognized legal entity." You then have other devs who didn't sign NDAs working on the same project saying they can make these changes. Here is a cliphttps://www.youtube.com/live/UaQpvXSa4X8?feature=share&t=1083
Linux Foundation also supports signing NDAs as well. I personally like the way OpenBSD handles these things by signing no NDAs, yes this will lead to less support from these companies.
If you play open sourced games like 0AD or SuperTuxKart then all the BSDs should work for you. Games like Veloren are currently not on OpenBSD but work on FreeBSD. If your a gamer you should most likely stick with Windows or Linux, however if you want to use BSD for gaming and don't mind tweaking things to work your best bet is using FreeBSD. FreeBSD currently runs steam and thus proton through its Linux compatibility layer as sadly Steam doesn't support BSDs despite claiming to support open source platforms. I have listed a Youtube channel below the records various games on BSD as well as another tool that does the setup for you for certain games to work out of the box on FreeBSD so you can see if it supports the games you are looking to play.https://www.youtube.com/@Alexander88207/videos
I personally would recommend running any servers you can on OpenBSD just for the added security benefits as well as the smaller code base. Instead of following my security guide for Linux I think just using OpenBSD is a better option.
In terms of a desktop OpenBSD is actually very capable despite being focused heavily around security. No it's not going to be as smooth or elegant as a workstation designed OS like macOS and you will need to make some tweaks to config files for unveil so your browser can read files on your computer (to upload things). OpenBSD has support for almost everything you may need it's not perfect but most users should be able to live with it. Krita, Kdenlive, Libreoffice, GoDot all exist in the ports tree for OpenBSD and work fine, meaning you can Photo & Video edit, make games, and even do office work without issues. For programming you have neovim and geany, not all neovim plugins work so you will most likely need to make your own configuration file. Things like React or NextJS don't work without tweaking it and even if you do tweak the code to run people have reported auto refresh functions not working. OpenBSD you will more or less have to see if it will work for you.
If OpenBSD doesn't work for you then I would recommend trying FreeBSD before going to Linux, FreeBSD has the same ports as mentioned above but includes React and NextJS support working out of the box as well as a port for VSCode. Auto refresh still doesn't work without messing around with fswatch-mon or by using webpack to work with react's auto refresh. FreeBSD offers many more ports and will be much easier to use than OpenBSD in terms of not needing to try to get so many things working manually. If you do play games I still recommend going with Windows or Linux but if you can live with FreeBSDs gaming support then it's your best choice.
DragonFly BSD wouldn't work on any of my computers so I can't really recommend it, it looks cool but I can't say much more beyond that. As for NetBSD if you have an older computer what else are you really going to run? You can run that outdated macOS version on your powermac or you can run NetBSD with the latest security patches, really depends what you want to do with that machine. I think NetBSD has a place but in my opinion it's not for modern hardware just due to how many different supported architectures there are, I don't see fixes for modern hardware coming in a timely manner. I could be wrong here I didn't daily drive it for long enough but with OpenBSD and FreeBSD being available I only see NetBSD as being useful on my older machines.
At the end of the day the support for applications and games comes down to us the people. If you want gaming on BSD you need to run BSD and ask for game support from Steam otherwise if your still playing on Linux why would they care? They didn't lose you as a customer they don't care what platform your on. This is for alot of different things if we want proper React or NextJS (Working now) support we need to ask for it or help program it ourselves and upload the Pull Request. If you want to try BSD but can't because something doesn't work, it's most likely not going to work unless someone (you) does something about it.