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Editor's Note: Why BSD Matters

FreeBSD, BSDi to Merge

  • March 9, 2000
  • By Kevin Reichard

The biggest news for Linux users this week didn't concern Linux -- at least not directly.

The biggest news concerned BSDi (Berkeley Systems Design, Inc.) and Walnut Creek CD-ROM, which is the primary backer of FreeBSD. The two entities will merge, forming a company called BSD Inc. The end result will be a combination of FreeBSD and BSD/OS, available in both commercial and freely available versions.

Why is this important for Linux? Because Linux and BSD are rather intertwined, in many ways. Certainly key technologies in Linux, like networking utilities and the TCP/IP stack, originate in the BSD world. Although BSD has been around longer and features an impressive user base, Linux is the glamour OS and has significantly raised the profile of freely available operating systems. In addition, Jordan Hubbard, one of the movers and shakers behind FreeBSD, has also been working with Linux luminaries to more closely align the two operating systems towards some level of joint future development, mostly relating to binary compatibilities.

It's in everyone's best interests for application-level compatibility. It is unrealistic for Linux and BSD partisans to require that vendors support multiple platforms: very few vendors are in a position to support three or four disparate Linux distributions (never mind the multiple BSD releases!), and so they just don't bother. This is why the Linux Standards Base is so important.

There's one distressing provision in the merger: while the new FreeBSD will be offered as open-source software under the liberal BSD license (by and large the BSD community has eschewed the GNU copyleft model), there will be another level of drivers and components originating in BSD/OS that will be offered as commercial software under the BSD/OS name. This may or may not pose a problem: Linux distributions are already offered under this model (for example, the free version of Storm Linux 2000 differs from the freely downloadable version), and if the new FreeBSD is sufficiently robust to serve the needs of many users then this type of distribution will make sense. But if the freely available FreeBSD is essentially crippleware designed to bring users to the commercial BSD/OS, then this licensing agreement will hurt the entire BSD space. And one can already anticipate the attacks from the GNU purists who will immediately declare war on FreeBSD and BSD/OS because of the refusal to buy into the GNU copyleft model. These internecine spats only serve to hurt the open-source movement and should be avoided when possible.

Still, the merger of BSDi and FreeBSD can't help but improve the public visibility of BSD, which is turn should help the other BSD releases (including NetBSD and OpenBSD) and Linux. In the end, open-source operating systems are the real winners.

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