Meet the FreeBSD Foundation

Interview – The FreeBSD Foundation

Article from Issue 234/2020

As the FreeBSD Foundation approaches its 20th anniversary, we talk to its top brass about the project's growing visibility in the open source ecosystem.

There's more to open source than Linux. FreeBSD, a free and open source Unix-based operating system, also plays an important role in the open source ecosystem. We talked to the FreeBSD Foundations's [1] executive director Deb Goodkin and director of project development Ed Maste at the recent Open Source Summit in Lyon.

Linux Magazine: Tell us about FreeBSD and the FreeBSD Foundation's long history.

Deb Goodkin: The foundation was founded in March 2000, so we're actually going to be celebrating our 20th anniversary March 2020. The original goal was to be sort of a legal entity that could hold any type of FreeBSD IP, and, at that time, it was the trademarks that we were given, so we've had ownership of trademarks and other IP since then.

LM: What is the FreeBSD Foundation's role with respect to the FreeBSD Project?

DG: We're a separate entity. Some open source projects, including NetBSD [2] and OpenBSD [3], are actually underneath their respective foundations, but we're a separate entity. We step in to support the project with critical needs. For example, they needed a release engineering person a few years back, and we were able to bring someone on full time to fulfill that role. It's not always a long term need; we tend to help when they need assistance and they don't have a volunteer who could step in to do it.

We also provide continuous support for software development. Even though we don't direct the project on what to do, we do give them advice on what we hear from end users and commercial users. And then if the need relates to a larger technology or feature, we do have software developers on staff, and that's what Ed oversees. But we also support outside contractors – for instance, an outside project might need a developer, and we find someone.

LM: So how many people do you have on staff?

DG: At the Foundation, including the full-time contractors, the number fluctuates, but right now we probably have around eight; and we have eight board members. The staff and board are located all over the world.

LM: What kind of projects do you get involved with?

Ed Maste: I guess broadly speaking, the foundation takes on projects in areas that the community (either corporate developers or the general development community) isn't addressing themselves. We step in to do work that has a broad range of interest. Development tools fall into this category. Everyone wants to have a good development tool chain, but it's not to anyone's competitive advantage to develop the tool chain independently.

DG: Yeah, so there might be something that no volunteer is really interested in doing, or it could be just stepping in to fix minor bugs. Our goal is to help get things fixed quickly and keep FreeBSD stable.

LM: Where do you get the budget to fund this development?

DG: We receive all of our funding from donations – anywhere from a $10 individual donor to a large corporation.

LM: Do you have a relationship with iXsystems? Aren't they one of the largest monetary contributors to the FreeBSD project?

DG: Um, well, not as a donor, but as far as having resources on staff that contribute to the project, I would definitely agree with that. We have a great relationship with iXsystems. We view them as a great FreeBSD advocate – a company that upstreams lots of changes and helps promote FreeBSD, but just like any other commercial user.

EM: Yeah, they've made donations in the past, sometimes just kind of general donations, and sometimes we've collaborated on a couple of projects where we found some interest in some areas of technology, and then iXsystems contributed some money, because they had an interest in the same kind of project.

LM: Are there any new projects that you'd like to highlight?

EM: One we just wrapped up was a big effort to improve FUSE filesystem support [4]. We started off with a GSOC [Google Summer of Code] project many years ago that did the initial port of FUSE to FreeBSD. And then another project updated a little bit and integrated it. But it was never really at the level of being fully production quality and usable. And so the foundation funded a project with a developer in the FreeBSD community recently to bring the FUSE implementation up to the contemporary version that matches what's in Linux. We fixed a lot of bugs, we have a comprehensive test suite now, and all of the outstanding known issues have been resolved. And now, you should be able to choose an arbitrary third-party FUSE filesystem, like NTFS or SSHFS or any sort of FUSE module, and expect it's going to work properly on FreeBSD.

And I think that kind of fits into a goal we've had: to improve the experience of FreeBSD on the desktop or on a laptop for end users. We've been looking at some projects to improve the WiFi situation on FreeBSD, for example.

LM: So you're focusing on the desktop now?

DG: Yeah, and one reason why we're doing that is we're looking at recruiting new users and contributors. We're looking at college students. And so we're making sure that, while we're getting into more universities, it's easier for someone to download FreeBSD and run it on their system.

EM: Yes, FreeBSD is perfectly usable for corporate, large-scale server users (people like Netflix). If you're a developer working at somewhere like Netflix, you are already invested in FreeBSD. It's quite easy to just use a virtual machine running on Windows or on Linux or on macOS. And that's a perfectly usable development environment. But for a lot of cases (students in universities, the kind of next generation of FreeBSD users we want to capture), it's not very compelling to say "Yes, you can do your FreeBSD work if you go through all these extra hoops."

LM: Isn't TrueOS [5] the desktop version of FreeBSD?

EM: TrueOS has long been a FreeBSD desktop, but there are a few others as well – like GhostBSD [6] and MidnightBSD [7]. I certainly am happy to have those projects package up the operating system and produce distributions with preconfigured options and have it usable in a way that is convenient for a new end user.

The FreeBSD base project is more focused on fundamentals, such as improved WiFi support and improved Intel graphics drivers, for example. If other projects come along and repackage it, the real value is in being able to say, "here's a set of packages that we've said work well together, and we've chosen defaults, and you can run the setup through our installer and get a usable system as we envisioned it."

LM: Will FreeBSD produce its own desktop as well?

EM: FreeBSD essentially provides a toolkit. We want to support the foundational infrastructure for desktop applications. So the foundation isn't going to produce a FreeBSD-Foundation-branded desktop. We just want to make sure that all of the foundational parts that are needed for a good desktop are in place.

DG: That's sort of the philosophy for all the development. Regardless of whether you're using FreeBSD as a server or for something else, we want the system to be at a state where it's easy to customize for how you want to use it.

LM: You mentioned Netflix. Can you name some other high-profile users of FreeBSD?

DG: Yeah, so NetApp, Juniper, we always say Apple, Trivago, WhatsApp, and Groupon.

EM: Companies like Trivago – they use FreeBSD as a server. They're not building their own appliance or anything on top of it. They just use FreeBSD as it exists. And they have a combination of Linux and FreeBSD; that's a good model for using FreeBSD – where its strength lies.

DG: Verisign does that as well. The LA Times, which is humongous, uses FreeBSD, and universities like Notre Dame use FreeBSD in their school of engineering. We know about these users because we go to a lot of open source conferences around the world, and people come to our table and they'll tell us how they are using FreeBSD.

One thing that we're really trying to do is publicize our users. We're just starting to work on some case studies. Netflix will be one of the first ones. They've been going around the world giving a Netflix/FreeBSD talk. Actually, the video of the talk from FOSDEM is online, and it's really interesting to watch [8]. We really want to highlight that talk and write up a case study and get more testimonials, so that more companies are aware of what they can do with FreeBSD.

LM: Is Netflix just a user?

EM: They are very good citizens in the FreeBSD community. They contribute an awful lot of code into the FreeBSD kernel, and they do a lot of performance work and network stack improvements. And because of their architecture, they're able to consume new versions of FreeBSD very quickly. So they're actually tracking our development branch in their releases. They can do that, because their whole architecture is sort of built on multiple layers of redundancy. They do a lot of large-scale tests, and we get a lot of large-scale test coverage because of Netflix.

DG: And they're really open to sharing their model. Other companies are aware of the Netflix talk now, and they've actually asked for help.

LM: What happens when other companies ask for help?

DG: One thing that we do is facilitate collaboration between companies. We may assist with setting up meetings, but most of the time is spent connecting people with each other.

LM: Do you think the FreeBSD Foundation being at Open Source Summit demonstrates the open source nature of the conference?

DG: Even though they call it Open Source Summit, it's still very Linux oriented. I say we're a minority voice in the open source world, and we have such a long history that there's a lot of components to the project that are really good models for other open source projects. And it's just really important for us to work with the Linux community.

EM: The kernel code is sort of completely distinct, although there are some cases where we're actually able to share things. But certainly the application stack running on top of FreeBSD and Linux – we collaborate with lots of upstream projects that primarily do their development on Linux and their main user base is on Linux, but they're very happy to work with us to bring up CI testing for FreeBSD or integrate patches to make sure that their software continues to work on FreeBSD. And so I think a conference like this is actually really beneficial for us to come and meet people who are outside of the usual circle of the BSD community.

LM: Did you just celebrate the FreeBSD operating system's 26th anniversary?

DG: Yeah, we have a long history. We descended from the original Unix from Berkeley and branched off from there. So it's fun to look at the history.

LM: To see how far you've come?

DG: Yeah. But also there's so much innovation that has happened and that is still happening. We still have some of the original Berkeley people on the project. And some of our oldest members are saying "let's make sure we're staying modern, that we're getting the young people involved," which is always great to hear. But there is also that philosophy too of change when there's a reason to change. If there is a compelling reason, let's change, but let's not change just for the sake of changing.

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