Back and forth: Linux and *BSD

This is kind of the post that I wanted to write much earlier this year. After running a Linux-only environment at home for years, I had become less and less happy with the general direction things seem to be heading. I had run FreeBSD and OpenBSD on real hardware (old laptops) and several versions of PC-BSD in VirtualBox over the years. In January I decided to step forward and install PC-BSD (10.2) on my primary computer for daily usage. It remained a short episode – and this post will describe why. When TrueOS was released to the public I decided to try out that right away. But that will be another post.

Initial contact

I cannot remember when I first read about the BSDs. That must have been many years ago when I became interested in reading a bit about UNIX. I remember beastie and puffy and I remember that I failed installing a system in a VM because it was somehow too complicated. It likely was OpenBSD and the chance is quite high that I quit during the partitioning which probably was way over my head at that time.

While I never lost interest in it (Unix fascinated me) I decided to “learn Linux first” as that was the system I had chosen to run my computers with. As the Linux world was big enough for years (trying out the various desktops, doing a lot of distro hopping, …) I touched *BSD only rarely. Basically it was limited to installing PC-BSD in a VM when I found out that a new version was released. It seemed to be nice but I didn’t see any benefit over my Linux systems and so I stuck with that.

After studying something entirely different, I had made the decision to break up and get into the IT instead, even though was I well beyond the age that you usually start an apprenticeship. In my country that means that you apply to a company to work as an apprentice there half of the week and go to school the other days. Being somewhat of a Linux nerd I had only applied to companies that I knew weren’t using Windows – I had left that mess and was determined to avoid it in the future as far as possible. In the end I signed a contract of apprenticeship with a hosting company, moved into the area and started learning Linux a lot deeper than I had before. And… I came in contact with FreeBSD.

Being a hosting company that had been founded in the nineties, it had of course started on FreeBSD. Even though the focus of the company shifted to Linux years ago, there still were about 100 servers running FreeBSD. My colleagues generally disliked those servers – simply because they were different. And our CIO declared that he hated them and would love to get rid of them as FreeBSD was totally obsolete these days. If it hadn’t been for our boss to have a soft spot for them (as that had been what he started with and also what he had come to know best over the years) there definitely would have been far less FreeBSD servers around.

Digging into FreeBSD

Now for whatever reason I do have a heart for underdogs and so I begun to be interested in those odd systems quite a bit. Nobody wanted to touch those dinosaurs if he didn’t really have to. However somebody had to take care of them anyways, right? They were production servers after all! I volunteered. There were moments where I kind of regretted this decision but now in hindsight it was an excellent choice. I’ve learned a ton of little things that made me understand *nix and even the IT in general quite a bit better compared to what I would know now if I had followed the straight Linux path.

I also found out that only very few things that the colleagues hated about our FreeBSD boxes were things to actually blame FreeBSD for. By far the biggest problem was that they simply had been neglected for like a decade? Our Linux systems used configuration management, the FreeBSDs were still managed by hand (!). We had some sophisticated tooling on Linux, on the BSD boxes there were crude old scripts to (kind of) do the same job. Those systems were not consistent at all; some at least had sudo others made you use su if you needed to use privileged commands… Things like that. A lot of things like that. So it wasn’t exactly a miracle that the BSDs were not held in very high regard.

As I said, I didn’t really see any real advantage of BSD before. Linux even seemed to be easier! Think network interfaces for example: “eth + number” is easier than “abbreviation of interface driver + number”. But Linux has since moved to “enp0s3” and the like… And when you think again, it does make a lot of sense to see what driver an interface uses from the name. Anyways: I begun to like that OS! FreeBSD’s ports framework was really great and I realized the beauty of rc.config (Arch Linux did away with their central config file to get systemd. What a great exchange… – not!). Also I liked the idea of a base system quite a bit and /rescue was just genius. Would my colleagues lose their contempt for our BSD servers if they were configured properly? I thought (and still think) so.

My apprenticeship was nearing its end and I had to choose a topic for the final project work. I was advised to NOT do something Linux related because the examiners… *cough* lacked experience in that field (in the past an apprentice even failed because they have no idea what they are doing. He went before court and it was decided in his favor. A re-examination by people who knew Linux got him an A!). Now things like that make me angry and calls upon the rebel in me. I handed in a FreeBSD topic (evaluating Puppet, Chef, SaltStack and Ansible for orchestration and configuration management of a medium-sized FreeBSD server landscape).

So for servers I was already sold. But could *BSD compete on the desktop, too? I built two test systems and was rather happy with them. However I wanted to try out a BSD system optimized for desktop usage. Enter PC-BSD.

Working with PC-BSD

I was called nuts for making that switch just days before the final presentation of the written project work (“you need to pass this – your entire career depends on it!!”). But I didn’t want to do a presentation on a FreeBSD topic using a Linux machine! Well, in fact I had been too optimistic as the installation turned out to be… rather problematic due to a lot of bad surprises. To be fair: Most of them weren’t PC-BSD’s fault at all. The BIOS mode on my computer is broken in it not supporting booting off GPT partitions in non-UEFI mode. This lead to my drives disappearing after installation – and myself wondering if my classmates were right… Never change a running system! Especially not if you’re pressed for time!

After I found out what the problem was, installing to MBR was an easy thing to do. I still needed every single night that I had left but I got everything to work to at least the level that allowed me to hold my presentation. Another thing was that I had enabled deduplication on my ZFS pool. “24 gigs of memory should be enough to use that feature!”, I thought. Nobody had told me that it slows down file deletion so much that deleting about 2 GB of data meant to go and do something else while ZFS was doing its thing. Even worse: The system was virtually unresponsive while doing that so you could forget browsing the web or something like that in the meantime. But truth be told this was my own mistake due to my very own ignorance about ZFS and I can hardly blame PC-BSD for it.

I kept PC-BSD on my laptop for about 1.5 month before I needed to return to Linux – and I would in fact even have returned earlier had I had the time to reinstall. While some issues with PC-BSD vexed me, too, I could have lived with most of them. But my wife complained all the time and that of course meant the end for my PC-BSD journey.

So what were (some) of the issues with it? My wife mostly uses the PC to check email when our children are occupied with something for a moment. For her the very long boot time was extremely annoying. And really it took multiple times as long as the Linux system before (and that was still one with Upstart!). Keeping one user logged in and changing to another user quickly wasn’t possible – which meant that I had to shut down my multiple virtual machines and log out completely if my wife just wanted to quickly check mail or something. Not cool. Things like that.

And then there were a few things that annoyed me. It drew power from the battery much, much faster than the previous Linux system. When watching a video, the screen saver kept interrupting it. Firefox had strange issues from time to time and liked to crash. Working with EXT4 formatted disks was a pain. And so on and so forth.

Of course there were good parts, too. I had a real FreeBSD system at my hands with access to ports. Two firewalls (that are nothing like the mess that is netfilter/iptables!) to choose from. Excellent documentation. Nice helper tools (like the automounter, wifi manager, disk manager, etc.). Several supported desktops to choose from. And of course the well thought-out update system that I liked a lot. Thinking about it, there are a lot of good parts actually. Unfortunately even a ton of things nice to have have a hard time covering things conceived as no-gos. That’s life.

I had intended to update to 10.3 and then write a complete blog post about PC-BSD. My wife didn’t like the idea much, though. In addition to that I had little spare time and no alternative spare hardware, so there wasn’t a chance for me to actually do that.

Interlude: Linux

So it was back to Linux. With systemd this time. I’m not exactly friends with that omnivoristic set of tools that annoyed me perhaps just not enough to switch the system over to runnit or openrc. Other than that life was good again (as my wife was happy and I could do my work). But there was one thing in the short period of time with PC-BSD that had changed everything: I had caught the bug with ZFS!

Fourtunately there’s ZFSonLinux, right? So I installed that and created a pool to use for my data. In general that worked but it’s a bit more hassle to set up compared to FreeBSD where you basically get it for free without having to do anything special! If you don’t want to compile all packages related to ZFS yourself for each new kernel, there’s a third-party package repository for Arch. ZFS is not in the official ones. At some point the names of the packages changed and the update failed. I didn’t find anything about that and had to figure out myself what happened.

After another kernel and ZFS update that I did in the morning succeed. But when I came home, my wife told me that when she logged in, she was logged out again almost instantly. I booted the computer and logged in – the same thing happened. What was that? No error message, no nothing. The system simply dropped me back at the login manager… So I switched to text mode to take a look at what might be wrong with the system. Long story short: My pool “homepool” which held all user’s home directories was not available! And worse: zpool import said that there were no pools available for import… With the update, ZFS had stopped working! That hit me in the wrong moment whan I had very little time and so I had to downgrade as the quickest solution.

In the end I chose to compile the “solaris porting layer” and the other packages myself. This was not so bad actually but knowing that on FreeBSD I’d have access to ZFS provided by the operating system without having to do anything (and that nobody was going to break it without it probably being fixed again in no time) vexed me. Of course there were other things, too, and using FreeBSD on other boxes, I wanted it back on my main desktop machine as well.

What’s next?

I installed TrueOS and used it for over three months. The next post will be a critical writeup about TrueOS.

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