Since I got to know some BSD UNIX operating systems on my journeys across the sea of systems for my x264 benchmark, I was fascinated with those UNICES, with BSD even more so than with Solaris. Besides OpenBSD, NetBSD, FreeBSD and Dragonfly BSD, one was particularly interesting, and that was [PC-BSD]. Yet another FreeBSD at heart, it adds quite a lot of value on top of that solid core to make it easier for users of both the Windows and Linux (and OSX I guess) worlds to start with BSD. Things that you would need to set up all by yourself on FreeBSD are already taken care of here, like e.g. giving you a built-in Linux compatibility layer ready for use, or the so-called “AppCafe” package manager, that is sinfully easy to use, a binary nVidia graphics card driver built-in, a graphical installer even…
Let me show you said AppCafe first. Now you still get to use the classic BSD binary package management with pkg_add -r, pkg_delete etc, also you can still make use of the source code based Ports system. But for the most important parts, and even more so for beginners, AppCafe is the place to start. Have a look:
As you can see, AppCafe shows you the latest additions on top, while allowing the user to either browse through packages by category or doing a full text search on the entire database of packages. The packages themselves are distributed as so-called “PBI” files, which contain the program itself plus all necessary libraries the program depends on. This might bloat packages a bit here and there, but it also makes it very easy to handle. Just click on a package, choose install, wait, done. Almost “Ubuntu”, eh?
The packages are actually built and added to the database by an automatic system from the Ports tree and (I assume) other sources. So if there is a new FireFox, chances are it’s going to appear in AppCafe rather sooner than later.
Above you may also have noticed Skype? There is no native BSD version of Skype, only Windows, OSX and Linux. Still, there is a Skype in AppCafe. This can be achieved easily, because PC-BSD ships with a fully configured Linux compatibility layer, from the kernel module linux.ko to linprocfs to other things. Typically, the user space components of that layer can be found in /compat/linux/. Because it’s already included in PC-BSD, AppCafe can just serve you certain Linux binaries where no other options are available.
This is also the way how PC-BSD included Adobe Flash by default. So yeah, despite UNIX, you still get Adobe Flash if you want. Plus OpenJDK if you need Java.
Another cool thing is the PC-BSD “Warden”. On Linux it can be quite tricky to set up chroot environments or “jails” to run ancient software with massive dependencies or to just lock in certain services. On this OS, there is a (graphical!) configuration tool to do just that very easily. Thus, jail management becomes very managable, and you can easily created new locked-in instances of different BSD systems:
Now you got the Linux compatibility layer and also a pretty modern Wine as your Windows runtime including good configuration interfaces like Swine (I even managed to get Lotus Notes Basic 8.5 to work!). But still, sometimes you just need a real Linux or Windows. And for that, PC-BSD has Oracles VirtualBox included by default, with kernel drivers and all, ready to use:
Basically, you got all you need though. Even Opera is available in its native BSD version from AppCafe, plus FireFox, Chromium, Thunderbird, Chat clients like SIM-IM, X-Chat and even Skype. Wine for Valves Steam? It’s there! Rarer software can be taken from the FreeBSD package repository using pkg_* or compiled from BSD Ports, which is not too hard to use. And for all other things you have a full GNU autoconf, make, cmake and several GCC compiler versions ranging from the system stock 4.2.1 all the way up to the 4.9.0 experimental version, so you can just compile your software from source code.
I was quite surprised by how easy BSD can be made. Sure, I had to compile my own Murrine engine to be able to use that neat Orta GTK+ theme for my UI properly, I had to compile my own libsidplay2+reSID engine to get some decent Commodore 64 SID emulation in xmms1 and so on. Some special things still do require some work. But then again, they also might on Linux.
Plus, there is ZFS. The greatest of all file systems with checksummed blocks, built-in blocklevel [data deduplication], dynamic block sizes, online compression, online file system repair, a full-blown RAID implementation and neat performance etc.
Oh, and before I forget it, this is what my PC-BSD looks like at the moment:
I do have certain long-term plans about replacing Microsoft Windows on my primary Workstation. That won’t happen anytime soon, even though I am using Windows XP Pro x64 Edition, but still. One day, a new OS will be needed. And when that day comes, it will likely not be Windows 7 or 8 or 8.1 or 9 or 17 or whatever. The way Microsoft is going just pisses me off too much. And besides Linux, I might actually go for BSD UNIX. I can’t say why really, but somehow I like this system. Plus, again, ZFS!
Exploring PC-BSD UNIX by Michael Lackner, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Austria License.