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Wide Open News BSD's Big Break?

Can Linux make room for another Cinderella story?

Once upon a time, there was a little-known operating system that built up its support base, incorporated some hefty enterprise-directed source code, got a distributor, and went on to become a major player in the open source market. Though the key factors are similar, this particular tale does not belong to Linux. Rather, it's the possible Cinderella story of FreeBSD, an open source version of BSD Unix whose future is attracting interest due to the recent merger of Berkeley Software Design, Inc., makers of commercial BSD/OS, and Walnut Creek CDROM, which distributes FreeBSD. One possible outcome of the merger is that the two BSD flavors, which both derived from BSD Unix, may be reunited. BSD Unix has been around for longer than Linux. Originating as early as 1976 in the hands of Bill Joy, Chuck Haley, and others at UC Berkeley's computer science department, BSD Unix has long been the darling OS for ISPs, and works behind the scenes on Yahoo and even Hotmail. The reason it never became as well-known as Linux may be a matter of bad timing: UC Berkeley and BSDI, which had begun distributing commercially-supported code, were hit with a lawsuit by AT&T in 1992 over the copyright of Unix. At the same time the BSD movement was entrenched in legal troubles -- making companies hesitant to jump on board -- Linus Torvalds was creating Linux and soliciting all the involvement he could. BSD eventually lost its funding from UC Berkeley, and split off into a number of different projects. These included FreeBSD, an open source group focused on optimizing BSD to work on the Intel platform, and Berkeley Software Design, Inc. (BSDI), which focused on selling BSD/OS commercially and providing commercial support. The relaxed BSD license essentially says developers can do whatever they want with software created under it -- even incorporate it into proprietary software -- as long as credit is given where credit is due. FreeBSD took the open source path and formed the FreeBSD Project to coordinate the efforts of its developers, while BSDI used the flexibility of the BSD license to incorporate proprietary code into its efforts to create a highly secure operating system. The license issue is one of the obvious differences between Linux and BSD. Linux was created under the "copyleft" GNU Public License, which states that the code must be open source, and can't be incorporated into proprietary software. While FreeBSD and Linux have rarely tangled on the license issue, the fact that the BSD/OS distribution includes proprietary code raises eyebrows for staunch GPL enforcers. But news that FreeBSD and the considerably closed BSD/OS would be sharing their codebases and possibly moving them into one package has been largely welcomed by the open source community. Eric Raymond is a vocal proponent of the BSDI's moves. "I think this merger is a good thing for the open source community, which is why I encouraged BSDI's top people to go for it when they asked my opinion months ago. One of its effects will be that BSD/OS is going to go truly open source, eliminating their traditional license restrictions; the FreeBSD wouldn't have consented to the [deal] otherwise." While BSDI points out that 15 percent of all Internet sites run BSD systems, the runner-up OS in fact makes up only a tiny fraction of the commercial server market that Linux has been steadily infiltrating. In its survey of revenue-producing, worldwide server OS shipments, IDC lumps BSD into its "other" category, a set that makes up only 2.6 percent of the market compared to Linux's 24.6 percent. But the BSDI and Walnut Creek combination represent what could be BSD's last big chance to grab more market share. According to Mike Prettejohn, analyst at market research group Netcraft, the two companies together make up about 95 percent of the commercial market for BSD OS sales while FreeBSD and BSDI represent about 90 percent of the BSD flavors powering Internet sites. In other words, the future of BSD rests on making this merger work. Eric Raymond points out that some stiffer Linux competition would do the open source market some good. "I welcome [the merger], and so should any intelligent Linux fan. I still think that Linux is more likely to win for the open-source revolution than the BSDs, but I welcome the BSDs getting stronger... As Eric Allman says, 'the high bit is open source'; what the Linux people have in common with the BSD people is vastly more important than their minor theological differences." The long-term effects of BSDI's moves on the open source market, however, are unclear. One possible downside of the merger is that the confusion over BSD could splinter the competitive inroads Linux has made against Microsoft and other well-funded competition. While Raymond has commended the total release of BSDI's proprietary code, the company acknowledges that it's actually going to take some time to decide what will be free or closed. Says new CEO Gary Johnson, "Both of the products [FreeBSD and BSD/OS] have a place in the marketplace and they will continue to have a place in the marketplace in the future. Will everything [that we can open source] go open source? We're evaluating that process and the technologies and have at this time made no final decisions. It's certainly not going to happen tomorrow or the next day. In the long run, the final decision will be pinned on customer response." And BSDI will have to sort out more than just the codebase for its future distributions. Though BSDI offers a secure, stable product with good support, the distribution side is scrambling to refocus. A bulletin on Friday announced Walnut Creek's intentions to split Slackware, another Linux distribution, into its own company, and the distributor's other offerings will have to be accounted for as well. IDC industry analyst Dan Kusnetzky points out that BSDI's effects on the market will depend in part on spin control. "If they lead with being 'open source' it could tend to help support the community as a whole. If they lead with being 'the only open source UNIX,' it may tend to cause difficulties." Where BSDI will fall on that trajectory is yet to be seen, but if there's more room for another commercial, open-source OS in the community, CEO Gary Johnson is poised to take it. "We believe the bridging of open source innovation and the commercial sector is going to be the wave of the future." BSD has some catching up to do in the marketplace, but Johnson seems confident that there are no breakers ahead. "BSD," he says, "is here to stay." ® Wide Open News is a partner of The Register. It's good. Check it out.

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