Transition to BSD: Why It Matters

I’ve been using OpenBSD for servers for several years, and I’ve flirted around with it, FreeBSD, and NetBSD on desktops. I settled instead on Linux for desktop use because Linux development was (and still is) much more dynamic. What mattered when I settled on Linux applies less to me now because I’m not living on the bleeding edge and the dynamism of Linux distros and what they include appeals less and less to me.

Most Linux distros compete without regard for hardware requirements: they presume users will treat hardware as disposable commodities (the frequent argument made against tech-dinosaurs at this point is Moore’s Law, which addresses costs as they relate to rates of technological change but not the issue of continued utility of older technologies). Accordingly, they pile on features that are beautiful to the eye but impossible to run without the latest hardware or major upgrades. That’s why I took exception to the FSF’s anti-Vista campaign this past week. They’re sanctimonious hypocrites for not blasting Linux distros like Mepis and Ubuntu for their system requirements right along with Microsoft’s requirements for Vista. The FSF’s silence over distros like Mint and PCLOS that include proprietary code (drivers, Flash, etc.) by default is also pretty suspect. Maybe they should clean their own house first and let the market decide if Vista is acceptable.

The way so many distros required me to upgrade my hardware to upgrade their releases led me to use two Linux distros: Slackware and Damn Small Linux. You don’t need certain video cards or massive amounts of RAM to run DSL: it will run on a 486 with 16 MB RAM. Each new release of DSL hasn’t rendered older hardware obsolete, it’s made it more useful. Slackware’s base install (which probably isn’t what most Linux advocates recommend to Windows converts) is also very lean and doesn’t require system upgrades; it’s the full install or what you add on top of a base install that affects Slackware’s hardware requirements.

Three things caused me to reassess my choice of operating systems. Individually, they weren’t enough to move me to do anything (especially anything that requires me to burn more ISOs, back up all my data, etc.). Taken together, though, I decided it was time to change.

First, I find the BSD-unit concept more appealing than the cowboy bits-and-pieces approach of Linux. In a nutshell, Linux is just a kernel and not an operating system. The distros pile an ad hoc assembly of tools (usually GNU utilities) on top of it to make a useful OS out of it. From there, it’s a battle between the distros with respect to application versions, system configurations, and package management systems.

In fairness, it usually works and works quite well. But there can be serious problems if one piece of the system doesn’t work right with the rest. This has affected me to various degrees with different distros, from living with little quirks to not being able to upgrade things or even to install certain software because it would break a system. Or actually breaking a system and having to reinstall.

In comparison, a BSD is a complete OS: kernel plus utilities. That’s a unit, one thing. It’s not ad hoc, it’s planned so that it’s integrated and (in theory!) less likely to break. It can recompile itself as a unit. Everything on top of the unit is optional and doesn’t affect the unit. This is why some people (I’m one of them) think BSDs are ultimately more stable than Linux-based systems. You can look up the benchmarking studies and accounts of uptime to satisfy whichever side you’re on.

Second, I want continued legacy hardware support. I’m not going to stop using, much less throw out, a working computer. I practice what FSF preaches (see above). I have functional computers over 12 years old, including some old Macs and early Pentiums. My “newest” computer is a 1300mhz Athlon-based XP box I use mostly for work. I found out last night I may have a new computer in my possession shortly, but it’ll be a donation and not something I’d ever rush out to buy (certainly not so I could run Vista or something that uses Beryl).

Naturally, I’ve had some issues getting certain bloated distros to work on my older hardware. Ironically, that includes ones usually lauded for their auto-detection and ease of use. I’ve been content, as noted above, with Slackware and DSL. Both are relatively user-friendly for users who bother to read the documentation.

I think the BSDs are better for older hardware than Linux — and that they will be better going forward. The Linux kernel has gotten bigger while deprecating support for certain older hardware. I’m unaware of any similar compromises in the BSDs to reduce legacy support; BSD shortcomings seem to be related to supporting bleeding edge hardware even though their wireless support is better than that in Linux (see below for Atheros relicensing issue controversy). Moreover, I know there are ports of all three BSDs available for all my hardware.

Third, and the straw that broke the camel’s back, I have very serious concerns about the restrictions imposed in GPLv3. I have major philosophical differences with FSF zealots over the changes — new restrictions — in the GPL. I’ve addressed those elsewhere in this blog (see category FSF Sucks). In a nutshell, GPLv3 moves the FSF’s goalposts from software to hardware (“anti-tivoization”) and data (DRM).

I think the “free as in speech” kind of freedom shouldn’t be restricted; free should mean “free.” Period. FSF disagrees with me and they’ve changed their license so that free means “less and less free.” They haven’t addressed new areas of technology (as they claim), they’ve only moved their goalposts to places Linus Torvalds isn’t prepared to go because he doesn’t share their peculiar ideological extremism.

The GPL activists also appear to think everyone else’s rules don’t apply to them. The debate over the licensing of the Atheros driver has me wondering if the GPL side thinks they’re above the law. It’s not about whether the code is still open, it’s whether it’s still free.

I’m sure Torvalds isn’t likely to change the kernel’s licensing to GPLv3. I also acknowledge much of the software I use, and will continue to use, is licensed under GPL. I use it because it’s good software and suits my needs, but I use it DESPITE its restrictive licensing.

It would be easier to be complacent and not make changes. Then again, it would’ve been even easier to use Windows or get a new Mac. At least I have options and I’m free to choose between them. That’s the best part of any decision.

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