Getting Started with PC-BSD
Did you ever wish that you could just use your computer without becoming frustrated by the experience? How many times have you found yourself asking:
- why can’t I browse the Internet or use email without worrying about viruses?
- Why can’t I find software that doesn’t crash or freeze my computer?
- Why do I have to rely on a technical friend or family member to keep my system up-to-date?
- Why does software cost so much?
- Why do I have to become a computer expert just to use a computer?!!
A Little History
Computers and software have been around for over 60 years, so it can be useful to have some historical context on why things are the way they are. In the beginning, computers were huge, taking up entire floors worth of space, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Computer manufacturers made their money selling hardware and computer users were expected to create their own software. It quickly became apparent to users that sharing the software they created with each other provided many benefits. It saved everyone from reinventing the same wheel and freed up their time to actually use the computer hardware they had invested so much money in. This software sharing evolved into associations of users that still exist to this day.
Examples include SHARE, created by IBM users in 1955, and DECUS (now called the HP User Society), which was created by Digital Equipment users in 1961.In the beginning, software was created by users and didn’t cost any money, and sharing communities were created by and for people using the same software.
Things began to change in the 1970s as lower-cost personal computers were introduced and software began to be sold as a product(see Elements of Operating System and Internet History: A BSD Perspective). Over time, users purchasing software became the norm and the members of software communities became limited to computer scientists and programmers.
Free and Open Source Software
In 1985, a computer scientist at MIT named Richard Stallman became frustrated that software he had created through academic research was being sold for profit by companies. In response, he wrote the GNU Manifesto and launched the Free Software movement.
According to Stallman, software is “free” not when it is obtained at no cost, but when it gives the user the following freedoms:
Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it means that the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:
A program is free software if users have all of these freedoms. Thus, you should be free to redistribute copies, either with or without modifications, either gratis or charging a fee for distribution, to anyone anywhere. Being free to do these things means (among other things) that you do not have to ask or pay for permission.
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
- The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
Whenever the term “free” is used here, it is referring to the above definition of free, not to the cost of the software.
- Free software does not include shareware that can only be used at no cost for a limited amount of time.
- Free software does not include demo software that only provides some features and nags you to buy the full product in order to access all of the features.
- Free software does not include spyware or trojans, which are meant to harm your computer.
- You are not engaging in software piracy if you download or use free software. Free software has already given you the freedom to use and share it with your friends without having to first pay a cost or ask for permission.
In 1998, a group of free software users decided to create a new term to describe free software. They felt a new term was needed so users wouldn’t confuse “freedom” with “no cost.” They coined the term “open source” and started the Open Source Initiative to promote its use.
While technical users may debate the nuances of each term, from a user perspective it is safe to assume that any software that calls itself “free/libre” or “open source” allows you to legally download, use, and share it at no cost.
Nearly a decade before Richard Stallman wrote his GNU Manifesto, computer scientists at the University of California at Berkeley were sharing the changes they were making to the Unix operating system with users at other universities. These changes were known as the Berkeley Software Distribution(BSD) Unix.
The changes included a working implementation of TCP/IP, the software that computers still use today to access the Internet and files on other computers.BSD also pioneered the concept of creating and sharing software over a network. In this way, a community of software users could help each other out, even though they all lived in different parts of the world. When the users at Berkeley stopped contributing changes to BSD in the early 1990s, the global community of users took over and continued development of the operating system.
- One group of users decided to concentrate on making BSD work on many different types of computers (the technical term is porting to other computer architectures). They formed the NetBSD project in March 1993. NetBSD currently supports 57 architectures, making it the most ported operating system in the world and earning it the motto “of course it runs NetBSD!”
- Another group of users decided to concentrate on personal computers and getting as many applications as possible to work with the operating system. They formed the FreeBSD project in November 1993. As of December 2009, FreeBSD supports almost 22,000 applications, all of which are free to use.
- A group of NetBSD users decided to concentrate on operating system security and started the OpenBSD project in December 1994. OpenBSD includes a number of security features absent or optional in other operating systems, and its motto is “Only two remote holes in the default install, in a heck of a long time!”
In 2005, a FreeBSD user started experimenting with some scripts to make installing and using FreeBSD easy for the casual computer user. His goal was to create a no-cost operating system that is so intuitive and easy to use, you shouldn’t have to constantly bug your technical friends in order to figure out how to do things. The result was PC-BSD.
PC-BSD is open source software, meaning that you have been given permission to install, use, and share it. PC-BSD has a vibrant community of other PC-BSD users with whom you can share your PC-BSD experiences, tips, questions and answers. Experienced PC-BSD users can also share their programs and add-ons.
PC-BSD is still FreeBSD under the hood, meaning that existing FreeBSD users have access to all of the FreeBSD features they expect. As new versions of FreeBSD are released, so are versions of PC-BSD. This means that PC-BSD users benefit from all of FreeBSD’s features as they are introduced.
Why PC-BSD Instead of FreeBSD?
PC-BSD is based on FreeBSD, so a natural question arises: “Why use PC-BSD instead of FreeBSD?”
FreeBSD is a popular open source operating system. It does have a reputation for being better suited to technical users than to casual computer users. For example, after installing FreeBSD, the user is left with a command prompt and is expected to know how to configure the graphical environment, networking and sound, and how to install additional applications. While these tasks are very well documented and easy to do (once you know what you’re doing), it does assume that you either know what you are doing or have the time to learn. While the learning experience can be very satisfying, it can also be frustrating to new users or users who need their computer to “just work” right now.
No Previous Knowledge Required
PC-BSD doesn’t require any previous knowledge since the operating system is pre-configured for you. It provides an easy-to-navigate desktop, a browser that is connected to the Internet, working sound, dozens of installed applications, and an easy way to browse for and install additional software. The first time you boot into PC-BSD, you can just start using it.
Stability and Security
FreeBSD has a reputation for being a very stable and secure operating system.
PC-BSD builds on this base by adding several features that make it easy for you to keep your system secure. The installation pre-configures the built-in firewall to allow access to the Internet but to prevent other systems from damaging your computer. A firewall utility is included should you wish to adjust your firewall settings.
PC-BSD includes a utility that automatically checks for security updates and newer versions of software. This application will pop-up when an update is available, describe the update, and provide a button for you to install the update.
Viruses on BSD systems are extremely rare (I have been using BSD daily for over ten years without running antivirus software and have never been infected by a virus). PC-BSD does support easy-to-install antivirus software should you wish to use it.
Friendly and Helpful Community
It may seem strange to include community as a feature of an operating system, but once you learn how to tap into a community’s resources you’ll realize why community is so important. No operating system is perfect. Sometimes an “intuitive” feature doesn’t make sense to you and sometimes things don’t work like they should. What do you do if your technical friends aren’t available or don’t know the answer?
Access to other PC-BSD users from around the world is a valuable resource. Someone else will have experienced the same problem and can tell you what they did to fix it. And if the problem turns out to be a bug in the software, others in the community can fix the software so it doesn’t happen again. The community is also a great place to learn about applications you haven’t tried before and to hang out with other PC-BSD users—this can be especially helpful if none of your friends has tried PC-BSD yet. The PC-BSD community has a reputation for being friendly and helpful.
Best of Both Worlds
PC-BSD isn’t just for the casual computer user; it is also well suited to existing FreeBSD users. I started using PC-BSD after nearly a decade of using FreeBSD as my desktop. I already knew how to configure a FreeBSD desktop, but wanted to try PC-BSD’s pre-configured install. I stayed with PC-BSD because I liked its additional features.
For users already familiar with FreeBSD, PC-BSD provides the best of both worlds: a pre-configured desktop and FreeBSD. You can still install software using the FreeBSD ports and packages(binaries builded from ports) collections, and you can try PC-BSD’s software installer. You can still keep your software up-to-date using traditional tools, and you can try PC-BSD’s update utility. You can still manually configure networking and the firewall, and you can try PC-BSD’s graphical utilities. Heck, you can change the desktop and still access the PC-BSD graphical utilities through the command line. If you’re a curious power-user like myself, you can even turn your PC-BSD installation into a FrankenBSD as you discover all kinds of novel ways to integrate FreeBSD with PC-BSD’s features.
Why Not Linux?
If you’re familiar wi th free software, you have probably heard of or used Linux before. You may even be wondering if PC-BSD is a Linux distro (it is not). PC-BSD aims to allow any user to use FreeBSD on his or her computer, much like Ubuntu10 aims to allow any user to use Linux on his or her computer. Both are examples of easy-to-use open source operating systems.
The answer to the question “why use PC-BSD over a Linux distribution such as Ubuntu?” depends upon whom you ask.
- Some PC-BSD users experience fewer problems using PC-BSD’s software installer and update utilities.
- Some find PC-BSD to be better documented or find the PC-BSD community to be more helpful.
- Some like the PC-BSD desktop better than the Ubuntu desktop.
- Some like that it is based on FreeBSD.
- The Definitive Guide to PC-BSD(2010 Apress) by Dru Lavigne ISBN: 978-1-4302-2642-0