Professional Software Consulting
FreeBSD / CentOS

The FreeBSD operating system is one of the most stable operating systems in the world. While Linux gets most of the press, FreeBSD is known as the operating system whose up-time is measured in years. It is an open source project that is based on the original Berkely unix developed many years ago, and is maintained by a core team of developers.

As with everything in life, there are tradeoffs. While Linux tends to focus on being an alternative for Windows operating systems, the FreeBSD community has chosen to focus more on creating an industrial strength server operating system that can take heavy loads on a wide variety of enterprise hardware. As a result, FreeBSD doesn't support the same range of consumer PC hardware as Linux does. Don't get me wrong, a GUI desktop is available via the X-Windows interface (the standard window managers, like Gnome and KDE, are available), but it really shines when you have an application that needs to work all the time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. If I need to create a data center, FreeBSD is what I put on my machines.

The various Linux operating systems can be made as stable as this, but FreeBSD comes this way out of the box (so to speak - it's a free download). The difference stems from the fact that Linux is technically not an operating system; it is a kernel originally created by Linus Torvalds. This, combined with the GNU Operating System or some variation of it, creates a distribution that is frequently marketed as "Linux." It is more correct to call it a "GNU/Linux." There are several dozen distinct GNU/Linux operating systems available today, each of these often maintained by a different organization, although many share the same version of the Linux kernel. Because of the philosophy of the linux community and the GNU license, these are all free of charge - although some companies make money through services such as installation, configuration, training, and technical support.

FreeBSD, on the other hand, is an operating system in its entirety. It shares some code with some of its sister operating systems like NetBSD and OpenBSD, but there is one team responsible for ensuring the integrity and quality of the entire product. So while the overall quality of a Linux distribution may be shared between different parties, in the case of FreeBSD, it is not. While no system is perfect, the sole point-of-contact for anything related to the operating system, plus the ease of installing packages via the ports collection can make FreeBSD easy to install and configure.

Of the Linux flavors, the one I recommend is CentOS. Based of the RedHat enterprise editions, CentOS has a slower release cycle than most Linux distributions, meaning that it is more thoroughly tested. While FreeBSD is excellent in many respects, there is one thing it cannot currently be used for: Amazon Web Services. Amazons Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) only works with Linux and certain versions of Windows; until some version of BSD is adapted to it, the best of the cloud servers (IMHO) is CentOS.

Another difference between FreeBSD and GNU/Linux has to do with licensing. In simple terms, the GNU/Linux license states that any modifications made to the operating system to create a new distributable product should be released back to the open source community free of charge. The BSD license, on the other hand, states that if you make modifications to the operating system in order to create your own distinct product, your changes are your own and you do not have to share them.

If you talk to technical people, we oftentimes display an almost religious devotion to our favorite operating systems, and sometimes a fanatical dislike of what we consider the rival. The truth of the matter, though, is that everything boils down to choosing the right tool for the job. While I prefer FreeBSD for server operations where I physically touch the hardware and CentOS for cloud computing servers, I have used both Windows and Macintosh servers because it made the most sense in the particular situation.

The future will no doubt bring the "killer-OS", the operating system which makes all other operating systems obsolete, much like TCP/IP pushed out its rivals in the network protocol space. But until that time, it is important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all operating system.

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