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GNU, Linux, BSD: FLOSS mythology and folklore

By GG-Off | le Code fait Loi | 3 Aug 2022

History and origins of popular UNIX-like systems


Linus Torvalds started Linux (then intended to be named Freax, for freedom, freak, and the X of UNIX – reminiscent from the older phreax of phone freaks, the hackers' grandparents) in the early 90's when he was a student at the Helsinki University, as a project because he didn't have enough money to purchase for himself a licensed version of UNIX. The rumour also circulates that he designed it to teach himself the workings and standards of UNIX, or to teach other students.

BSD* is “traditional UNIX trademark” (in the words of Eric Raymond): it evolved from the very code generated for the original UNIX itself, by the Bell Laboratories for the American Telegraph and Telecom (AT&T) corporation employing academic research efforts**. However this ended up in a trial where the university was sued for using and distributing free copies of what AT&T considered was their private property.

This marks the initial split of the BSD development branches into separate factions. 386BSD was maintained by the Jolitz couple. At the same time, a FTP server for 4.2BSD was maintained by a community of online users where everyone could send their code and patches. This later turned out to become FreeBSD, while Theo de Raadt and other found the process too anarchic and started out their own NetBSD fork in '93. Unfortunately Theo had to split and was joined with other members of the team when he started his own fork as a “benevolent dictator”, OpenBSD.

At the same time all across the US, at the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Richard Stallman had designed the GNU*** environment, for which he still needed a kernel. The hacker lore has it that the reason why he embraced free software was when he complained that he couldn't fix his own printer as it was delivered without source code. As he was missing the kernel for his operating system, the Linux community came in and today we have the GNU/Linux operating system.

Presently (2022) there are three main versions of the BSD operating system, the “specialty” of which is coined by all three in their respective mottos :
· “The power to serve” : FreeBSD concentrates on being fit for servers, and is notably used by companies such as Netflix.
· “Of course, it runs NetBSD !” : NetBSD concentrates on portability, a versatile system that is able to run on any machine (no matter how old, basic or exotic). Records of contributions by Julian Assange from the late '90s can still be found on community servers and mailing lists
· “Only two remote holes in the default install, in a heck of a long time!” : OpenBSD concentrates on security, sane defaults and sane/minimalistic coding practices. It is notably reputed for the quality and readability of its man pages.

* Berkeley Software Distribution, coming from the Berkeley Science Department and also an onomatopoeia for Beastie, the BSD mascot.

** Now gone to Plan 9 and Inferno

*** Recursive acronym for GNU is Not UNIX



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