FreeBSD’s 30th birthday presents an opportunity to look back and examine why this open source operating system has not only endured, but thrived across many organizations and use cases for so long. While open source projects are born out of different circumstances, FreeBSD grew from a mold of its own. The path the project took has everything to do with its longevity and why, 30 years after FreeBSD launched, you’ll find FreeBSD code helping to power everything from your content on Netflix to your games on PlayStation.
BSD (before the Free)
Initially released in 1993, FreeBSD is rooted in the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) code base that had been under development since the 1970s. The pioneering BSD project introduced the socket networking interface, the first implementation of TCP/IP, file systems including VFS, FFS, and NFS, the mmap memory model, and more. While BSD was not open source, its licensed code still received many contributions from academic and industry users.
Most of BSD was made available as open source software with the 4.4BSD-Lite distribution, providing the basis for FreeBSD. The foundational nature of its technology has been a significant factor in its success ever since.
A shared approach to leadership
To manage leadership succession and avoid risks associated with the singular-leader structure common to many other open source projects, the founders of the FreeBSD project set up the FreeBSD Core Team, a group of leaders responsible for the project’s direction and controlling committer privileges. While the founders initially assigned themselves as these leaders, in 2000 the nine seats on the Core Team became elected positions. Enabling committers to vote for FreeBSD’s leadership and rise to leadership roles themselves has kept the project particularly robust and capable of evolution.
Modern remote development
FreeBSD has leveraged source code control, bug reporting, and other tools that could enable remote development from its beginning. In an era when open source project distributions were most often maintained by a single individual who personally added all code contributions, the novel advantages of FreeBSD’s strategy have since come to define modern practices. This freedom to accelerate development beyond standard limitations meant rapidly incorporating code—including valuable capabilities drawn from NetBSD and OpenBSD.
A discerning approach to hardware
The FreeBSD project decided from the start to select recommended hardware and offer diligent, targeted support. As a result, FreeBSD has consistently found itself ahead of the curve when it comes to reliability and performance metrics. That distinction is why it’s been such an enduringly popular choice for companies from the dial-up age through to modern web server providers.
Stellar communication, documentation, support, and culture
With FreeBSD enabling remote development and global contributions, the project was particularly strategic about the mailing lists it developed to keep work and design discussions organized and efficient. Because of that, FreeBSD quickly achieved thoughtful communications management with monitoring and moderation to keep discussions civil (yes, civility!) and on topic, without limiting freedom of expression and while serving developers from diverse cultures.
FreeBSD has also excelled at maintaining valuable software documentation from its beginning, starting by recruiting contributors with a focus on documentation, and asking developers to participate in making sure that documentation is accurate and complete. Toward this goal, FreeBSD specifically introduced a documentation committer group with the same privileges as code committers. The project also supports a multi-language documentation framework, making FreeBSD knowledge more approachable to more developers worldwide.
Culture is as important as technology in open source, and FreeBSD has a welcoming and inclusive one that extends the same voting rights (and an equal voice in the community) to all committers. The thriving FreeBSD Foundation—which was one of the industry’s first—offers a deep set of project support services as well.
FreeBSD’s initial release included numerous contributed utilities and libraries, and these have only expanded into the vast FreeBSD ports collection available today. This collection offers powerful and well-supported access to advanced open source technologies on top of FreeBSD. Once again, FreeBSD was an early leader. FreeBSD’s package management tool, pkg, has had regular improvements over the years. Poudriere, a FreeBSD package creation and testing utility, is a great tool that leverages jails, a major strength of FreeBSD, to allow developers to reproducibly test port changes and reliably build our 30,000+ ports. And, finally, all of the ports are available in binary form to make it easier for the user to install applications by using the pkg command.
Last but never least in open source… the licensing
Perhaps the most significant contributor to FreeBSD’s 30 years of success is its open source Berkeley license. The Berkeley license doesn’t require organizations to share source code changes with others, whereas Linux does. Companies that must place code representing proprietary intellectual property into their products need that licensing freedom—such as those in the appliance and embedded OS market. That open source freedom, paired with strong leadership, a strong culture, and robust code that continues to evolve, is why FreeBSD is now celebrating a happy 30th birthday.
Looking ahead to the next 30 years
FreeBSD’s 30th anniversary provides a reminder that durable success doesn’t happen by accident. Reviewing how our community tackled the massive technical changes and challenges that occurred during this period also gives insights into what we must do to ensure we can celebrate similar milestones in the decades to come. By providing the best platform for rapid experimentation and development of new technologies, coupled with a reliable foundation for commercialization and wide adoption, we expect to see FreeBSD continue to thrive. We invite and encourage you to be a part of the next 30 years.
Deb Goodkin is executive director at the FreeBSD Foundation, which supports the open source FreeBSD operating system. Deb has been with the foundation since August 2005. She has spent 20-plus years working in marketing, sales, and development of data storage devices. She earned an MSEE from the University of Santa Clara and a BSCE from the University of California, San Diego.
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