I hear a lot of discussion about how superior Linux is to Microsoft’s operating systems. Certainly, there are many more attacks targeting Windows and IIS platforms. A good case can also be made that Linux is inherently more stable and secure than Microsoft products, either because it’s based on a better core of code or because it’s open source, and many individuals have a stake in monitoring and making repairs.

However, with all this discussion, there rarely seems to be any mention of an even more secure and completely free version of UNIX: BSD. While Linux is the darling of the hacker set, it is far from the least expensive or even the most secure open source operating system available. Linux isn’t even running on the widest range of systems. All three of those distinctions belong to an academically developed version of UNIX that originated at the University of California, Berkeley and whose various versions are often referred to collectively as BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution).

Linux vs. BSD
Linus Torvalds’ Linux is quite a youngster compared to BSD. At two decades of age, BSD is as old as the PC and was running in universities back when Bill Gates was famous for MS-DOS.

So you may well ask, “If BSD’s so great, why aren’t more people using it?” There are a variety of reasons, although none of them is related to the quality of the operating system itself. One reason users tend to favor Linux over BSD is cultural. Linux is a hacker’s delight. The hacker community latched onto it in part because it was good and also because of the mythos surrounding its development: Shut a lone Finnish hacker in a room with a computer for a few months and out pops a major operating system! That’s as much urban myth as truth, but Torvalds is directly responsible for creating and making Linux available and should get a great deal of credit for his hard work.

But while the origin of Linux has a bit of hacker romance, BSD comes directly from the academic community and its development is tied more closely to computer science departments than the freewheeling exchange of hackers. When companies started hiring hackers to install and manage the Internet, they naturally turned to their old friend Linux rather than the hidebound (in their view) BSD.

Another reason Linux has become so popular is that a number of enterprising individuals and companies have found that there’s money to be made selling Linux distributions and support services. Without Red Hat and other Linux distributors, who have made it easier to install and have added some shrink-wrapped packaging acceptable to corporate management, Linux would probably have been a mere blip on the corporate landscape.

Linux also owes a major debt to BSD, which took on AT&T (Bell Labs invented UNIX) in a major battle over licensing the operating system. The battle between AT&T and BSD supporters hurt both UNIX and BSD, leaving the field wide open for Linux development and marketing.

However, even though Linux has received a lot more attention than BSD, that doesn’t mean that BSD has been ignored. A number of large organizations have quietly built their empires on the BSD core, including Yahoo. Some major IBM systems even rely on BSD.

BSD distributions
We’re going to take a quick look at three major BSD-licensed UNIX versions: OpenBSD, NetBSD, and FreeBSD. All three can be downloaded from the Internet for free and have no restrictions on their use. In fact, the BSD open source license is even more “open” than the GPL that governs Linux. Of course, most people will pay something for even these operating systems if they want to avoid long downloads. After all, a two-CD set containing OpenBSD costs just $30, and you can make all the copies you want and install it on as many systems as you choose.

If you’re looking for a highly secure OS, then you need look no further than OpenBSD, which is probably the most secure operating system ever developed. If that seems a far-fetched claim, just remember that it’s been four years since a major (or even minor) remote access hole was discovered in the default installation.

If you have a wide variety of obscure systems and want to support the same OS across all of them, check out NetBSD, which runs on nearly 70 platforms from Algor to VAX to Walnut.

But both OpenBSD and NetBSD owe their major claim to fame (strong security or near-universal platform compatibility) in part to having a relatively restricted set of features. You can do a great deal with either operating system, but if you want a lot of bells and whistles, you should consider FreeBSD. This is an Intel platform OS with lots of developers dedicated to making your life easier.

Summing up
If relying on Microsoft products to secure your company scares you, and management is beginning to ask you about this “new” Linux thing it’s been hearing about, why not take advantage of management’s open-mindedness and try to steer it to one of the free versions of BSD UNIX instead? If you need a selling point, just point out that there are no license fees, so your organization won’t have to track all that software inventory that’s necessary when you have to pay for every copy you install on a new computer.

How do you feel about BSD?

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