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News and Editorials

PC-BSD: FreeBSD For Dummies

November 16, 2005

This article was contributed by Ladislav Bodnar

With all the current attempts to make Linux as user-friendly and easy-to-use as possible, some might wonder why there has been so little effort to do the same with one of the BSDs. After all, FreeBSD has proven itself to be a fast, reliable and extremely stable workhorse, powering many of the world's most popular web servers and search engines. Although support for more exotic hardware in the BSD kernel usually lags behind that in Linux, many commonly used devices work well with any recent FreeBSD release. This, in addition to the availability of thousands of open source software packages (the recently released FreeBSD 6.0 includes over 12,000 ports), should make FreeBSD an ideal operating system for general computing, development work and perhaps even common office tasks.

Unfortunately, FreeBSD is not an easy operating system to set up as a desktop or workstation. It is perhaps even harder than setting up Slackware in the Linux world, as FreeBSD too requires a fair amount of dirty work and expert knowledge to mold it into a usable shape. With the curses-based sysconfig being just about the most user-friendly utility there is in FreeBSD, and where everything, even font anti-aliasing and sound module loading, requires extensive hacking in obscure configuration files, there is little wonder that FreeBSD, or indeed any other *BSD, has not taken over the desktops of ordinary users.

But this is about to change. Some six months ago a project called PC-BSD was born with a clear vision: to turn FreeBSD into a user-friendly and intuitive operating system that anybody can install and use without having to first obtain a computer science degree. Naturally, with so many new distributions launching all the time these days, it is easy to be skeptical about any new project with such lofty claims. Luckily, the response to the initial announcement was nothing short of overwhelming and the developers soon found themselves besieged by hundreds of enthusiastic users as well as experienced developers, translators and documentation writers who quickly set up channels for contributing to the project. Then, last week, they released a feature-complete release candidate which will shortly become the project's first official product - PC-BSD 1.0.

What exactly constitutes the "user-friendliness" of PC-BSD? Firstly, there is the installer. Based on the original FreeBSD live CD by FreeSBIE, the installation CD starts with auto-detecting and auto-configuring the system's video card before presenting the user with an installation interface somewhat resembling Red Hat's Anaconda. After selecting the keyboard layout, hard disk partition and a place to install the boot loader (with sensible defaults), the installer copies all applications from the CD to the hard disk. When done, the user is asked to set the root password and create a user account. That's it. Barring some unforeseen circumstances, a reboot will bring up KDE 3.4.3 with a scenic desktop wallpaper. FreeBSD has never looked so good!

Admittedly, the installation CD contains a rather minimal graphical system that is unlikely to satisfy most users. A quick solution to the problem is to visit pbiDIR, the official repository for .pbi packages or, in other words, a categorized collection of binary applications designed to work with PC-BSD. While not quite "click-n-run", the installation of .pbi files is fairly straightforward: after saving a .pbi package on the hard disk, a double-click will launch a package installation dialog (root password is required). This will guide the user through the process of installing the package and to make a couple of simple decisions, such as whether or not to place the application's icons in the KDE menu and/or on the desktop. All installed programs can be removed later from a graphical utility called "PC-BSD Package Manager". Although the number of .pbi software packages in the repository is fairly limited, the developers do provide instructions for creating these packages, so anybody can build and submit their preferred applications.

Since PC-BSD is essentially a dressed-up FreeBSD, the options of compiling applications from ports or installing binary ones with pkg_add are also available. In fact, the developers have created a graphical interface for downloading and installing the entire FreeBSD ports tree, although those who will want to take advantage of it will still need to reach for the command line. Likewise, downloading the FreeBSD kernel and userland sources is also just a mouse click away. Complementing the PC-BSD "System" utility is an option to switch to an SMP kernel, to enable or disable SSH, NFS, Samba and CUPS services, and to generate a diagnostic sheet - all from the comfort of a graphical user interface. Several Qt-based graphical tools for setting up monitor, network, users, printing, etc. are also available, while a custom "Online Update" utility will upgrade the installed system to a new version without the need to re-install.

I spent a couple of days examining the RC1 of PC-BSD 1.0 on a spare Pentium 4 computer with a Matrox graphics card, Sound Blaster Live! sound card and a Realtek 8139too network card. All of the hardware was detected and set up correctly during installation (except for the screen resolution which needed a quick adjustment). I also installed and removed a number of .pbi packages and even compiled a few ports from source - all without the slightest hitch. The system felt fast and responsive and the boot and shutdown times were noticeably shorter than those of most Linux distributions. The project has a well-designed web site with good basic installation documentation and highly active user forums frequented by many obvious beginners to BSD. Perhaps the only real drawback of PC-BSD, from the point of view of a novice user, is the relatively low number of easily-installable .pbi packages, but this can only improve with time.

PC-BSD is currently the best attempt at developing a desktop FreeBSD operating system with "a human face", and certainly the easiest way to get a FreeBSD desktop up and running without any toiling on the command line. Despite the project's young age, it has already achieved most of the early goals of producing a usable desktop FreeBSD for non-technical users where system installation and essential configuration can be effected with a mouse. More unexpectedly, there seems to be plenty of momentum and excitement about the project. It will be interesting to see whether PC-BSD will be able to popularize FreeBSD as an operating system that can be used by ordinary people, not just seasoned UNIX hackers.

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