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FreeBSDCon'99: Fans of Linux's lesser-known sibling gather for the first time

November 1, 1999
Web posted at: 8:36 a.m. EST (1336 GMT)

by Vicki Brown


(IDG) -- FreeBSD, a port of BSD Unix to Intel, has been around almost as long as Linux has -- but without the media hype. Its developer and user community recently got a chance to get together for the first time, and they did it in the city where BSD -- the Berkeley Software Distribution -- was born some 25 years ago.

October 17, 1999 marked a milestone in the history of FreeBSD -- the first FreeBSD conference was held in the city where it all began, Berkeley, CA. Over 300 developers, users, and interested parties attended from around the globe.

This was easily 50 percent more people than the conference organizers had expected. This first conference was meant to be a gathering mostly for developers and FreeBSD advocates. The turnout was surprisingly (and gratifyingly) large.

In fact, attendance exceeded expectations so much that, for instance, Kirk McKusick had to add a second, identical tutorial on FreeBSD internals, because it was impossible for everyone to attend the first!

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But for a first-ever conference, I was impressed by how smoothly everything seemed to go. Sessions started on time, and the sessions I attended were well-run; nothing seemed to be too cold, dark, loud, late, or off-center.

Of course, the best part about a conference such as this one is the opportunity to meet with other people who share similar interests. Lunches and breaks were a good time to meet people, as was the Tuesday night beer bash.

The Wednesday night reception was of a type unusual for the technical conferences I usually attend -- a three-hour Hornblower dinner cruise on San Francisco Bay. Not only did we all enjoy excellent food and company, but we all got to go up on deck and watch the lights of San Francisco and Berkeley as we drifted by. Although it's nice when a conference attracts thousands of attendees, there are some things that can only be done with smaller groups of people; this was one of them.

In short, this was a tiny conference, but a well-run one.


Although it was a relatively small conference, the number and quality of the sessions belied the size. Each of the three days of the conference featured a different keynote speaker. In addition to Jordan Hubbard, Jeremy Allison spoke on "Samba Futures" on day two, and Brian Behlendorf gave a talk on "FreeBSD and Apache: A Perfect Combo" to start off the third day.

The conference sessions themselves were divided into six tracks: advocacy, business, development, networking, security, and panels. The panels track featured three different panels, made up of three different slices of the community: the FreeBSD core team, a press panel, and a prominent user panel with representatives from such prominent commercial users as Yahoo! and USWest.

I was especially interested in Apple Computer's talk in the development track. Wilfredo Sanchez, technical lead for open source projects at Apple (no, that's not an oxymoron!) spoke about Apple's Darwin project, the company's operating system road map, and the role of BSD (and, specifically, FreeBSD) in Apple's plans.

Apple and Unix have had a long and uneasy history, from the Lisa through the A/UX project to today. Personally, I'm very optimistic about the chances for the Darwin project to succeed. Apple's core OS kernel team has chosen FreeBSD as its reference platform. I'm looking forward to what this partnership will bring to both sides.

Other development track sessions included in-depth tutorials on writing device drivers, basics of the Vinum Volume Manager, Fibre Channel, development models (the open repository model), and the FreeBSD Documentation Project (FDP). If you're interested in contributing to the FreeBSD project, the FDP is a good place to start.

Advocacy sessions included "How One Person Can Make a Difference" (a timeless topic that would find a home at any technical conference!) and "Starting and Managing A User Group" (trials and tribulations as well as rewards).

The business track featured speakers from three commercial users of FreeBSD: Cybernet, USWest, and Applix. Applix presented its port of Applixware Office for FreeBSD and explained how Applix has taken the core services of Applixware into open source.

Commercial applications and open source were once a rare combination; we can only hope the trend away from that state of affairs will continue.

Commercial use of FreeBSD

The use of FreeBSD in embedded applications is increasing as well -- and it is increasing at the same rate that hardware power is. These days, even inexpensive systems are able to run a BSD kernel.

The BSD license and the solid TCP/IP stack prove significant enticements to this market as well. (Unlike the GNU Public License, the BSD license does not require that vendors make derivative works open source.)

Companies such as USWest and Verio use FreeBSD for a wide variety of different Internet services.

Yahoo! and Hotmail are examples of companies that use FreeBSD extensively for more specific purposes. Yahoo!, for example, has many hundreds of FreeBSD boxes, and Hotmail has almost 2000 FreeBSD machines at its data center in the San Francisco Bay area.

Hotmail is owned by Microsoft, so the fact that it runs FreeBSD is a secret. Don't tell anyone...

When asked to comment on the increasing commercial interest in BSD, Hubbard said that FreeBSD is learning the Red Hat lesson. "Walnut Creek and others with business interests in FreeBSD have learned a few things from the Red Hat IPO," he said, "and nobody is just sitting around now, content with business as usual. It's clearly business as unusual in the open source world today."

Hubbard had also singled out some of BSD's commercial partners, such as Whistle Communications, for praise in his opening day keynote. These partners play a key role in moving the project forward, he said, by contributing various enhancements and major new systems, such as Netgraph, as well as by contributing paid employee time spent on FreeBSD.

Even short FreeBSD-related contacts can yield good results, Hubbard said. An example of this is the new jail() security code introduced in FreeBSD 3.x and 4.0, which was contributed by R & D Associates. A number of ISPs are also now donating the hardware and bandwidth that allows the project to provide more resource mirrors and experimental development sites.

See you next year

And speaking of corporate sponsors, thanks go to Walnut Creek for sponsoring the conference, and to Yahoo! for covering all the expenses involved in bringing the entire FreeBSD core team to Berkeley.

As a fan of FreeBSD, I'm happy to see that the project has finally produced a conference. It was time: many of the 16 core team members had been working together on a regular basis for nearly seven years without actually meeting face to face.

It's been an interesting year for open source projects. I'm looking forward to the next year -- and the next BSD conference -- to be even better.

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