Examining OpenBSD from the point of view of a Linux user

What OpenBSD Lacks

Perhaps the most outstanding issue plaguing OpenBSD is raw performance. Since the developers are more interested in making the source code readable and easy to understand than in making it blazing fast, the operating system does not take advantage of multithreading as much as it could.

Another thing administrators might miss is a more versatile filesystem. OpenBSD uses the Unix File System (UFS), which lacks modern journaling capabilities. Thankfully, it uses soft dependencies as an alternative, which ensure that the filesystem will remain in a consistent state after a crash. However, UFS does not offer Copy-on-Write, so you can't take ZFS-like snapshots of a running system.

Support for NVidia graphic cards can only be described as atrocious. The developers attribute this to NVidia's refusal to collaborate and share GPU specifications in order to write code for their cards, and therefore their official recommendation is to not use NVidia hardware with OpenBSD.

Removable devices are supported up to a point, but don't expect a mass USB storage device to auto-mount as it would do with a modern desktop environment on Linux. OpenBSD just does not have an abstraction layer for mounting pen drives and assigning them permissions out of the box. You can always hack a solution for supporting auto-mount, but it is an involved process.

Conclusion

OpenBSD is a true heir to the Unix heritage, built upon Unix code (instead of being a clone written from scratch, like Linux). As one of the big four surviving BSD Operating Systems – the other three being NetBSD, FreeBSD, and DragonFlyBSD – it still brings great features to the table.

OpenBSD's so-so performance, combined with a lack of a Copy-on-Write filesystem, may preclude it from certain server applications. Still, OpenBSD is a nice solution for deploying simple services, since the configuration files are compact and short, and the documentation is excellent. It is very popular for firewalls, routers, and ISP infrastructure.

The OpenBSD developers aim at delivering an operating system that has sane defaults and does not need the user to write complex configuration files in order to offer reasonable security. The unveil() and pledge() system calls are a good example: They are measures integrated in the programs the user runs, so the user needs not be aware of their existence to benefit from them.

Hardware support is not on par with Linux. If your computer has an NVidia card, you are better off using something else. The complications of hardware support have contributed to OpenBSD's reputation for being a server operating system rather than a desktop operating system. On the other hand, popular desktop applications such as Thunderbird and LibreOffice are available from the ports tree and the repository, so OpenBSD is certainly ready for the office as long as you are aware of the hardware limitations.

OpenBSD is home to a whole lot of projects that are valuable on their own. Some of these tools can be used on Linux, such as OpenSSH; others are OpenBSD specific, such as OpenHTTPD. In any case, these projects will delight proponents of the KISS principle. OpenBSD is worth a try, if just for the userspace software it ships.

Infos

  1. OpenBSD: https://www.openbsd.org
  2. Raymond, Eric S. The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, O'Reilly Media, 1999, http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/
  3. OpenBSD manual page server: https://man.openbsd.org/
  4. OpenBSD Porter's Handbook: https://www.openbsd.org/faq/ports/index.html
  5. OpenBSD package management: https://www.openbsd.org/faq/faq15.html
  6. OpenSSH: https://www.openssh.com/
  7. OpenSMTPD: https://www.opensmtpd.org/

The Author

Rubén Llorente is a mechanical engineer whose job is to ensure that the security measures of the IT infrastructure of a small clinic are both law-compliant and safe. In addition, he is an OpenBSD enthusiast and a weapons collector.

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