Meet FreeBSD Project – A Journey of 26 Years and Beyond

Summary: When talking about operating systems or platforms to run the whole computing processes for various devices, you might have heard about FreeBSD quite often. However, today’s implementations of this operating system are apparently not too well-known, and many people don’t know the contributions of FreeBSD in today’s computing technology. Since this operating system is not generally available for the average users, FreeBSD remains to be something that many people nowadays are not well-acquainted with. Yet, it has been used in various hardware and online platforms today, and it has been actively used for more than 26 years now.

As a part of UNIX operating system, FreeBSD is an operating system that is intended to be used for various platforms. The focus of this operating system is to provide the best performance, compatibility, security, and advanced networking for desktops, servers, game consoles, and online platforms. This OS has been used for more than two decades ever since its first release in the 1993. Today, it is recognized as a robust operating system that offers cutting-edge features that are not available in other operating systems.

With its decades of development time, this operating system has managed to expand all over the world and become one of the most used operating systems for various hardware, servers, and online platforms. It can be used both as a full OS or as an integrated/embedded system that has lighter codes to run for the specific function of the hardware. The features offered by this operating system is top notch, as it combines performance, security, networking, and storage into one unified package. Moreover, companies don’t need to upgrade their hardware constantly just to follow with the latest release of FreeBSD, which makes this OS even more preferable to be used for long-term.

FreeBSD is a project inherited from Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD), and it is available for free. Anyone can download and use it along with the source code. Variety of hardware and online platforms have used this operating system as their primary driver. To find out more information about FreeBSD and the use of this powerful OS for various purposes, we have interviewed Deb Goodkin, executive director, FreeBSD Foundation. Deb Goodkin will explain various aspects of the FreeBSD operating system that many people might not know about, as well as the plan for the future of the project.

FreeBSD and Linux – Are They the Same Operating System?

While many people confuse FreeBSD with Linux because they have some similarities, FreeBSD is actually not a part of Linux operating system, nor is it a Linux distribution. FreeBSD and Linux have a basic difference, which is that the FreeBSD is based on the BSD, which is based on UNIX. FreeBSD was not developed as a part of Linux OS, but instead, as a part of UNIX. Linux was in fact an open source alternative to UNIX. So, FreeBSD is not a Linux distribution, but instead, it is a derivative of BSD, which is based on UNIX operating system. The development of this system dates back to 1970s at the University of California, Berkeley. Since then, it has undergone massive changes to be the OS that we know today.

Deb Goodkin explained about the difference between FreeBSD and Linux, “Linux and FreeBSD are both Unix or Unix-like.  The similarities do lend people to think that FreeBSD is a Linux Distribution. However, that is not the case. FreeBSD is descended from the Unix developed at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1970s. Linux, on the other hand, was built as an open source alternative to UNIX. These days, FreeBSD can execute many Linux binaries, while Linux cannot execute FreeBSD binaries.  Many FreeBSD implementations can also execute binaries from other UNIX® like systems. The similarities do make it easier for Linux developers to get involved with FreeBSD.

Currently there are over 400 active developers and thousands of contributors. FreeBSD works on 32- and 64-bit Intel / AMD x86, 32- and 64-bit Arm, RISC-V, PowerPC, Sparc64, and MIPS CPUs, and cloud providers like AWS, Azure, and GCP. There are tens of millions of deployed systems.

As with other BSDs, the FreeBSD base system is an integrated operating system distribution that is developed and released as a cohesive whole by a single team, which is in contrast the Linux approach of distributions picking up the kernel from one source, the C library from another, the userland tools from another and so on.” 

The Biggest Difference between FreeBSD and Linux

As an open-source alternative of the UNIX operating system, Linux does share a lot of similarities with UNIX. However, they are not developed in the same way. As history goes, UNIX was being developed since the 1970s, while Linux was first released in 1991. So, Unix has a lot more development time, thus, giving it an advantage over the Linux operating system in many ways. This is the reason why Unix-based operating system like FreeBSD is being used to power modern servers, hardware, and online platforms because it offers cutting-edge features that are not offered in other operating systems yet.

FreeBSD is always at the forefront when it comes to introducing new cutting-edge features that are often still in the testing phase. This way, this operating system helps shape the whole technological ecosystem that we have today, and thus, helps shape the modern age of computing. The most notable differences between this operating system and Linux are the principle behind its programming development and the license that it uses to distribute the OS to the users.

As with the biggest difference between FreeBSD and Linux, Deb Goodkin further explained, “FreeBSD operates on the Principle of Least Astonishment. In other words, don’t break things that work. Because the OS doesn’t change without good reason, if you are basing your code or product on it, you don’t have to constantly catch up everytime there is a new OS release. It also makes upgrading relatively painless.

The licensing model is probably the biggest difference between the two. Linux is under the GNU General Public License (GPL), meaning in part, that any derivative work of a product released under the GPL must also be supplied with source code if requested. FreeBSD on the other hand, is under the copy-free BSD license. It’s less restrictive: binary-only distributions are allowed and particularly useful for embedded platforms.”

Notable Usages or Applications of FreeBSD

During its decades of development, FreeBSD has been used in different hardware, servers, and online services, whether it is used as the main operating system or as an embedded operating system. Many companies are using this OS mainly because of its performance, advanced networking features, and security that ensure the ecosystem that they have built for their platforms or hardware remain secure and up to par with the current technological demands. Also, with its Principle of Least Astonishment, companies don’t need to upgrade their hardware every time a new FreeBSD version is released.

As FreeBSD is used mainly as a base operating system for hardware, servers, and online platforms, its name is usually buried deep under the company, product, or brand that uses it. People would know more about the company, brand, or product that uses FreeBSD than they know about the FreeBSD operating system itself. For instance, many people might not suspect that popular brands like Netflix, PlayStation, NetApp, and Groupon use FreeBSD as their base operating system.

In regard to the various usages or applications of FreeBSD operating system, Deb Goodkin said, “FreeBSD is everywhere.  It offers high performance, security, and advanced networking. People use it for personal workstations, Internet servers, embedded devices, routers, and firewalls. The FreeBSD packages collection includes popular software like: Apache and NGINX web server, GNOME, KDE,, Python, Firefox and over 30,000 software packages. Below are just some of the more recognizable FreeBSD use cases.

The Community of Developers around the FreeBSD Project

The FreeBSD operating system is developed by the community of developers working on the project together. However, there are core team members that were elected democratically to ensure that the development of this project runs well. Anyone can submit their changes to the source code without having to deal with a lot of hassles in regard to obtaining approvals from the senior programmers or anything like that. The community is friendly and approachable, and with its culture, you can have more fun learning about system programming.

With the type of community developers and culture environment surrounding the FreeBSD project, anyone can make a big impact in the development of this operating system, and in so doing, moving the project ahead steadily from time to time.

Deb Goodkin explained about the development community surrounding the FreeBSD project, “FreeBSD is the largest and oldest democratically run open source project. Committers can commit their changes directly to the source tree without having to go through the hierarchy of a lieutenant model. The community is approachable and friendly with a strong mentoring culture. There are a number of founding developers, FreeBSD icons if you will, who are still involved with the Project. They are incredibly approachable and are very interested in helping others get started. There are functional teams that allow developers to support FreeBSD while following their interests.

The Project has a democratically elected core team that is decoupled from the development model. They are responsible for administrative tasks such as team charters, to setting strategic direction, to rule enforcement and conflict resolution. 

The size of the project, and the above mentioned flat model of development allows for a greater chance for anyone to make a notable impact.

Because of its cohesive design, FreeBSD is probably the best place to learn about systems programming.”

The User Experience Offered to FreeBSD Users

Like any other operating systems, FreeBSD offers the best user experience for anyone who is interested in using this OS. For a starter, anyone can use the available desktop environments and graphical user interface on top of the FreeBSD operating system. But, even more than that, the friendly and approachable community is the true strength of this OS, and it is the one that will bring the best user experience for anyone interested in using this system. Anyone can ask the community and get their questions answered as soon as possible through various channels.

Deb Goodkin said, “Popular GUIs and desktop environments are available to make getting started easier but what sets the Project apart is the friendly and approachable community combined with the excellent documentation including mailing lists and forums that allow for folks to easily get their questions answered. Frequent conferences and meetups also provide an excellent opportunity to have face to face discussions with fellow contributors, developers, and users.“

The Future of FreeBSD

Being an operating system that has more than 26 years development time, as well as being used by millions of devices out there, FreeBSD surely has a bright future ahead. There are various plans that the community developers are trying to accomplish for this OS in the future. To move this OS forward, the FreeBSD Foundation is supporting this project closely by working together with the core team developers to ensure that this OS remains active and regularly updated.

Innovation is the core of the development of FreeBSD, and the team of developers of this project is always trying to bring the best features for this operating system going forward. There are lots to be done to improve this OS, such as improving the overall performance, addition of new cutting-edge features, WiFi improvements, more expansion support, and many more. The BSD Certification program is also a future plan that is going to meet its realization very soon.

To conclude the interview, Deb Goodkin said about the future plan of FreeBSD, “The FreeBSD Foundation’s purpose is to support the FreeBSD Project. While we’re an entirely separate entity, we work closely with the Core Team and the community to move the Project forward. In 2019, we’ve embarked on an even broader spectrum advocacy project to recruit new members throughout the world, while raising awareness about the benefits of learning FreeBSD. We are funding development projects including WiFi improvements, supporting OpenJDK, ZFS RAID-Z expansion, security, toolchain and performance improvements, and other features to keep FreeBSD innovative. The FreeBSD Foundation will continue to host workshops and expand the amount of training opportunities and materials we provide. Finally, the BSD Certification program will soon relaunch with greater availability.”