TrueNAS CORE 13 is the end of the FreeBSD version

Debian-based TrueNAS SCALE is the future primary focus

Bad news from BSD land – the oldest vendor of BSD systems is changing direction away from FreeBSD and toward Linux.

NAS vendor iXsystems has been busy this year, but apart from some statements in online user communities, it hasn't been talking about the big news. Back in 2022, we covered TrueNAS CORE 13, the new release of its FreeBSD-based turnkey OS for NAS servers, and in that article we mentioned its new product, the Debian-based TrueNAS SCALE, aimed at providing storage for Kubernetes users.

Now it seems the company is betting its future on that Linux-based product, meaning the end is in sight for the FreeBSD offering.

TrueNAS SCALE is apparently thriving. Gartner recently handed iXsystems a gong for Customers' Choice in storage. With some VMware users feeling uncomfortable about Broadcom's takeover and assessing alternatives, many TrueNAS customers told the company that they were considering KVM.

Meanwhile, the company released version 23.10 of the Debian-based TrueNAS SCALE. It even found time to donate its Fast DeDup feature to the FOSS world.

Good for iXsystems, and good for TrueNAS SCALE. But what about, if you'll pardon the pun, its core offering? It's called TrueNAS CORE 13 because it's based on FreeBSD 13 … but that came out in April 2021, and earlier this month, the developers released the latest update, FreeBSD 13.3. TrueNAS CORE 13 users – including this vulture – are still waiting for the 13.1 release, which is still shown as an "Unstable Build" on the company's Software Releases page, and with nary a hint on the status page.

TrueNAS CORE evolved from the older FreeNAS. FreeNAS first appeared in 2005, based on the m0n0wall firewall with a web GUI written in PHP. Under iXsystems, FreeNAS got a whole new UI in version 11, which is still used today. A fork of the original FreeNAS, updated with current FreeBSD components, continues as the XigmaNAS project.

The creator of PC-BSD, Kris Moore, is still with iXsystems, where he's now Senior VP of Engineering. He's also active on Reddit under the handle of /u/kmoore134. Back in December, he told the TrueNAS subreddit:

Right now the plan for CORE is to release a 13.1 update in Q1 of 2024. This will be a maintenance-only type update which includes an update to the FreeBSD base, OpenZFS and Samba. No new features expected.

That's looking dated now. FreeBSD 13.1 came out in May 2022, and reached its end of life in July 2023, replaced by FreeBSD 13.2.

Moore continued:

We have no plans for a FreeBSD 14-based TrueNAS at this time, and the 13.1 release will be a longer-lived maintenance train for those who want to continue running on the BSD product before migrating to SCALE later at some later date.

That sounds bad. We asked the company if this was true, and marketing veep Mario Blandini confirmed it, telling The Reg:

TrueNAS CORE is entering its sustaining engineering phase within the TrueNAS project. TrueNAS SCALE within the TrueNAS project is where new features and updated components are developed and tested. Some of those are eligible for backporting to TrueNAS CORE, and CORE users can migrate to SCALE to take advantage of new features.

There will be at least one more update to CORE:

Next up for TrueNAS CORE is 13.3, which we can give you some early detail on before it is released next month, based on FreeBSD 13.3. Among TrueNAS features, it will include updates to ZFS as well as an upgrade of Samba to version 4.19, to maintain parity with the next release of SCALE.

The 13.3 wishlist contains more details of the updates to expect.

There is an upgrade path. Because of the way TrueNAS works, the OS is kept on its own, dedicated drive – the company recommends a fast SSD – that is not shared with the network, and indeed cannot be. Thanks to ZFS snapshots, it's possible to do an in-place migration, although it's a one-way process. Both the FreeBSD and Linux editions use the same OpenZFS file system so the new OS can pick up and migrate the settings from the old one. What it can't bring across is VM appliances. TrueNAS CORE plugins run in FreeBSD Jails or under the bhyve hypervisor, whereas the VMs you can create in TrueNAS SCALE run inside the Linux kernel's KVM. These are not interchangeable.

This is significant and sad news because iXsystems grew out of the original BSD vendor, Berkeley Software Design, Inc., which sold BSD/386, the first commercial BSD-based OS for commodity hardware. We described the early history of BSD when we looked at FreeBSD 13.1. The company has a long and complex history involving multiple mergers, sell-offs, and re-acquisitions, including Walnut Creek CD-ROM.

The Unix market has been turbulent and troubled for many decades, and under its various names, the company has a long history of divestments, acquisitions, and, indeed, shutting products down. After merging with Walnut Creek, it sold off its OS division to Wind River, which then sold off the FreeBSD part of the business as the FreeBSD Mall, which iXsystems acquired in 2007, soon after its 2006 acquisition of PC-BSD, a desktop-focused FreeBSD distro.

In 2009, the developer of FreeNAS moved on to a Linux-based system, which developed into Open Media Vault. iXsystems stepped up and took over FreeNAS development. It also continued work on its desktop version, which in 2016 it renamed TrueOS. In 2020, it discontinued TrueOS, and combined FreeNAS with its TrueNAS line.

For the company, this move doubtless makes sound commercial sense. Although The Reg FOSS desk remains skeptical about whether most of its users actually need Kubernetes, it remains popular and adoption continues to grow. Many companies have hitched their future to this bandwagon and got rich. For iXsystems, it seems to us like a small fish choosing to jump into a big pond, and we are concerned what might happen if the wave of microservices hype crests and dissipates.

One of the advantages of FreeNAS was that it was simple and frugal with resources. Like XigmaNAS, it installed onto a USB key, meaning that upgrading was as simple as writing a new image to a new key. In our briefings with the company, we've repeatedly reminded iXsystems of this, and requested the return of that feature, but the company's representatives didn't seem to understand why it was desirable.

Eleven years ago, we wrote about how aiming for enterprise customers lost Novell its small business heartland. We are concerned that iXsystems risks the same fate.

One of the problems with ZFS on Linux is that because it's not part of the kernel, its cache must remain separate from the Linux kernel's own cache, which is a key advantage for bcachefs. We have no fewer than three old HP Microservers around, with a grand total of 22 GB of RAM between them. That means TrueNAS SCALE is little use to us – and, we suspect, many other small deployments.

There are already mutterings about a fork, and we will be watching the area closely. ®

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