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So What Is BSDi Up To?

by Joseph Scott of Daemon News

By now you've probably already heard about the new BSDi, born of the old BSDi and Walnut Creek CDROM, with the recent addition of Telenet Systems. Since the announcement of BSDi's merger with Walnut Creek, there have been questions and concern about the effect on the continuing development of FreeBSD and BSD/OS, and you've most likely already read at least one or two other articles that discuss what this might mean to the future of the BSD community. Will the new BSDi try to bully FreeBSD into doing things its way? Will BSD/OS simply become FreeBSD with some add-ons? Telenet, today, will sell you a system with FreeBSD or BSD/OS installed; what about NetBSD and OpenBSD?

If you don't know the answers to these questions already, then today's your lucky day. Last week I spent an hour on the phone with Mark Garver, BSDi's new Group Executive, Marketing and Internet Systems Solutions, to find the answers to the questions above, as well as a few others. Mark is one of several new faces in BSDi's upper management. (If this is the first you've heard about BSDi's new management, go take a look at their press release for details on who these people are and what skills they are bringing to the new BSDi.)

For starters, let's clear up the question of the relationship between BSD/OS and FreeBSD. Mark made it clear that the two products are separate and will remain so. They will not be merged into one source tree and/or one distribution. Now that that's cleared up, let's talk about where they will be working together. In general, they will cooperate and share technology where it will benefit both BSD/OS and FreeBSD. This means that in areas where their technology overlaps, we'll see BSD/OS and FreeBSD working together to reduce duplicated effort. There is already one area that they are working on in this regard, a common set of APIs and device driver specs.

So will BSDi use this cooperation to sculpt FreeBSD into its own image? In a word, no. And you got that straight from BSDi's VP. BSDi understands that their role is one of cooperation, not domination.

To this still fresh merger is added Telenet Systems. Mark put it very simply: BSDi customers were looking for a place where they could get everything they needed -- hardware tuned for BSD, bundled with BSD software and support. He explained that in many cases they would get support calls from folks who had assembled their own boxes and were having problems getting components to work just the way they wanted. This merger will answer customers' age-old question: who can we look to for support for these systems? This was the driving force behind the Telenet acquisition. But Telenet also offers bundled systems with other OSs, like Linux. Will they continue to do so? Yes, Mark assured me that Telenet will continue supporting the same types of systems they did before the acquisition.

So are there any plans to sell systems preconfigured with NetBSD or OpenBSD? Not right now, but it's not something that they are ruling out; it simply isn't in the works at this point. They even went so far as to say that if you called Telenet and asked for a system with Net- or OpenBSD preinstalled, they might just go ahead and do it for you.

The target market for these complete solutions? BSD's traditional market, the server arena. BSDi wants to use Telenet's hardware to provide infrastructure grade solutions, combining superb hardware with rock-solid BSD operating systems. As someone pointed out on one of the FreeBSD mailing lists, however, the Telenet systems don't have a lot of style to them. Not to fear, BSDi will be hiring people to look at different design options, so at some point we can expect to see sexier looking systems from BSDi.

In addition to using BSD on servers, I've also personally been using it on my desktop systems. So I wanted to know, are we going to see systems from BSDi that are more suited for desktop systems? As it turns out, they are already looking at adding a new line to the Telenet offering of systems, aimed at the desktop/workstation market. That certainly was the answer I was hoping to hear. But I wanted to take it one step further: What about notebook systems? I had spent quite a bit of time looking at different notebook systems that would fit my needs, including the ability to use BSD. Unfortunately, that is not something BSDi plans to add to the lineup at this point, but they are looking at working with notebook vendors to certify their use with BSD.

Support for desktop systems will come not only in the form of complete hardware systems. BSDi has started increasing support for desktop-level hardware, such as sound cards. On top of that they will be looking to work with vendors of desktop software. We've already seen an example of this, where the FreeBSD project funded a native port of the Applixware office suite. While it's not something we discussed, it would be interesting to see some additional game support for BSD. Traditionally, people working on open source projects are more interested in source code than in marketing and meeting with other vendors. BSDi will be able to provide the legwork that open source projects often have the hardest time with, like working with other vendors. We've already seen benefits in the forthcoming Java 2 port. While they were silent on which other vendors they are working with, I was assured that they are in talks with others, and we'll be seeing more of these types of announcements by the time BSDCon 2000 comes around in October.

With all of these changes comes the question, why? Why go through all the trouble of growing a relationship with an open source project like FreeBSD? Why buy a hardware vendor when BSDi has always been a software company? The answer is pretty exciting if you have been a fan of BSD for very long. BSDi wants to take the charge in leading the BSD community forward. To listen to Mark talk about it, you get the feeling that this is a time in the history of BSD that we'll look back at and consider a major milestone.

So far, it seems like all the right things are being said. Everyone understands their roles and what it will take to succeed. I'm sure there will be a period of adjustment for all the different groups from BSDi, Walnut Creek, and Telenet who are now working together. Overall the feeling is one of progress. I look forward to what the future holds for BSD.

Joseph Scott first started working with BSD in 1997 while working for a small ISP. This has continued at his current position in the Office Of Water Programs at CSU Sacramento, where he's responsible for several BSD systems.

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