Linux fans love to promote the security of their system, but that doesn't go far enough for a group of BSD developers. One version of BSD, OpenBSD, claims to be one of the most secure operating systems available. Does it live up to the hype? Let's find out.
What is OpenBSD
OpenBSD is an open source operating system based on the "Berkeley Unix" strand, which was first developed in the 1970s. It's very similar to Linux, but there are a few key differences. While Linux distributions ship with the kernel and various other utilities, OpenBSD is developed as a complete system. At the moment the current version is 7.0.
OpenBSD is known for its focus on security. The project's website notes that only two remote holes have been found "for a long time".
The OpenBSD project seeks to build the most secure operating system by combing extensive code audits and combing the code line by line looking for bugs. They claim on their website that when they checked their code, they found entirely new categories of security flaws. They have also implemented many techniques to thwart exploits, with their homepage having all the technical details.
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The most noticeable element to outsiders is the theme of the OpenBSD releases. Her releases include designs and even songs based on pop culture, including "Ghostbusters" and "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". All of these artworks feature the company's mascot, Puffy the puffer fish.
Despite OpenBSD's commitment to security, the project doesn't seem afraid to show its playful side. The project's focus on security has made it popular for applications that rely on security, such as routers. OpenBSD's approach to security seems to be, "If you want it to be done right, do it yourself."
They have written their own C library, firewall, PF, and even their own HTTP server. They even have their own sudo alternative called Doas. OpenBSD's programs are used far beyond OpenBSD itself. The most visible projects in other Unix / Linux distributions include OpenSSH and tmux.
History of OpenBSD
OpenBSD was founded by former NetBSD developer Theo de Raadt after disagreements with the development team led to de Raadt being asked to resign. In the great tradition of open source software, he created a fork of the project. The project has grown over the years to over 50 versions that are released roughly every six months.
OpenBSD is based in Canada (where de Raadt lives) and is exempt from the export controls for cryptography that a US-based organization would have to adhere to. According to a map showing the locations of the OpenBSD developers, most of them are still based in North America and Western Europe.
OpenBSD may date back to the 1990s, but its ancestry dates back to the late 1970s as UC Berkeley's Berkeley Software Distribution.
You install OpenBSD the same way you install any other Linux distribution: by downloading the installation media and using it to boot your computer.
You will immediately be confronted with the installation process. It seems to embody some of the aspects of OpenBSD itself: It's tight, text-based, and doesn't seem to hold much in your hand. Like the system, it is aimed at experienced Unix users and admins. It still works through many of the same processes and any other Unix or Linux system: you partition your hard drive and install packages.
If it's your first time, the best method is to just install everything. You won't miss a thing and storage space is cheap these days anyway. Then install the boot loader and boot into your new OpenBSD system.
Package management in OpenBSD
Using OpenBSD is superficially very similar to using a Linux system. In contrast to Linux is the standard shell pdksh, a variant of the Korn shell whose functionality is very similar to that of Bash.
By default, OpenBSD boots from a console interface. This is fine if you want to use it as a server because that way you can run "headless" and connect over the network, but you can run it as a desktop too if you really want to.
To install external packages, OpenBSD has its own package manager. the pkg_add Command adds packages while pkg_delete removes them. the / etc / installurl File controls that OpenBSD will look for to find packages.
For example, to install a package as root, enter:
OpenBSD as a desktop?
Although OpenBSD is popular in server applications, you can run it as a desktop just like you would on a Linux system. You can install an X Window server with the FVWM desktop by default.
As with the other options in NetBSD, this seems very old-fashioned and Unixy as the developers want it to be. You can install other window managers and desktops that you may prefer by using the package manager.
The system comes with the xenodm display manager, which is recommended in the documentation for starting X. The installation program also helpfully offers to start it automatically. You could start X with the "startx" command without a display manager, but this only seems to work with the root account. This could be another design decision by OpenBSD that is secure by default.
You are using OpenBSD even when you are not using OpenBSD
As mentioned earlier, OpenBSD's influence extends well beyond the people who actually use it through a number of open source projects.
The most visible of these is OpenSSH, which provides SSH connectivity for most open source operating system distributions. Because of its BSD licensed code, it is also used in many commercial products because you do not need to disclose the changes to the source.
The home page also notes that many companies are not contributing funding (whose lack of funding has been blamed for the Heartbleed bug) and may point out, in an attempt at subtle shame, that funding can be directed to the OpenBSD project.
Another widespread project is the tmux terminal multiplexer.
Should you be using OpenBSD?
You may be wondering if OpenBSD is right for you. If you prefer a simple "Unixy" approach to system administration, you will enjoy OpenBSD, especially if you are familiar with the command line. If you care about security, you'll love OpenBSD too because the developer community is so obsessed with it.
The main problem will be hardware support, especially if you intend to run it on a desktop. Although OpenBSD runs on a number of architectures, the choice of drivers may be limited, which is what the other BSDs and even Linux distributions share. Hardware support, at least for WLAN and graphics cards, seems to be more available under Linux.
OpenBSD is one of the most secure operating systems available
With its focus on security, OpenBSD is well worth a visit for any serious Unix / Linux fan. Even if you don't use it every day, every project can learn something from its design.
If you are interested in other BSD systems, consider NetBSD, which is known for its portability to different computers.
NetBSD explains: The Unix system that runs on everything
When it comes to a portable and reliable operating system, nothing beats NetBSD.
About the author
(65 published articles)
David is a freelance writer based in the Pacific Northwest but originally from the Bay Area. He has been passionate about technology since childhood. David's interests include reading, watching quality TV shows and movies, retro games, and collecting records.
By David Delony
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