How I fell in love with the OpenBSD operating system

Photo courtesy of Ilya Pavlov, published on Unsplash with a CC-0 license.

I do love open source software. Oh boy, I really do love open source software. It’s extendable, auditable, and customizable. What’s not to love?

I’m astonished by the idea that tens, hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of enthusiastic, passionate developers collaborate on an idea. Together, they make the world a better place, bit by bit.

And this leads me to one of my favorite open source projects: the 22-year-old OpenBSD operating system.

The origins of my love affair with OpenBSD

In 1993, when I turned six, we’ve got our first computer; a Laser 286/2X. It came blasting in with two processors, a 45meg HDD and a few megabytes of RAM (4MB if I recall it correctly, but the details are a bit vague). It featured MS-DOS, WordPerfect 5.1 and a bunch of entertaining games.

But from the first eyesight on, I was more interested in the inner workings of the device. I quickly began to master MS-DOS, QBasic and later on Windows for Workgroups 3.11, which I got from a teacher at my elementary school.

Years later, I exchanged elementary school for high school and quickly befriended Giel, who was a geek like I was. He introduced me to Red Hat, with KDE 1.0.

At the time, I was unfamiliar with the concept of open source, and this got me hooked from the first second. I can’t exactly remember the order, but I switched a lot of distributions from that moment on: SuSE, Mandrake, and eventually ended up with Slackware.

Once the notion of open source fully sank in with me, I began to feel blessed. Blessed to be using the product of thousands of volunteers worldwide. It was a true honor.

From Linux to *BSD

From that moment, I spend nearly all my spare time on IRC channels and Usenet, gathering knowledge, participating in discussions and exchanging ideas.

Somewhere along the way, I read about *BSD. About how it was not another Linux distribution, but a completely different operating system with different goals, ideas, and less organic grown.

I flirted with FreeBSD first, but it didn’t felt right, so I switched back to Linux. But then I stumbled upon OpenBSD. It wasn’t love at the first sight, perhaps. I was accustomed to Linux too much to just make the switch.

However, I did install a dual-boot (OpenBSD/Linux) and began liking it more and more as weeks progressed, right up to the point where I ditched Linux in favor of OpenBSD.

The advantages of OpenBSD

I do consider myself an OpenBSD evangelist. The operating system has some very impressing advantages when compared to other systems:

It’s extremely secure

OpenBSD has an excellent track record when it comes to security. The default install has only had two remote code execution vulnerabilities in almost twenty years. Compare that to Windows, Linux or FreeBSD, which have had many more, and the conclusion is quite clear.

Moreover, OpenBSD is the leader when it comes to exploit mitigation techniques. Last but not least, they did develop OpenSSH and an exhaustive list of really impressive programs, concepts, and projects.

It’s well documented

Everything within OpenBSD is documented very, very well. The man-pages are the one stop shop if you need information on the syntax of a program, it’s functions, etc.

It’s open source

This might seem a somewhat strange point, as I’ve made it abundantly clear in the beginning of this piece. But, I’d like to talk about this a bit more.

Whereas most operating systems include proprietary, closed source drivers, OpenBSD by default does not.

Closed source drivers can’t be audited, thus forming an unknown attack vector. For all we know, these closed-source drivers might be bug-ridden, vulnerable, or in violation of software license agreements.

If you’d like to go further down the rabbit hole, there is fw_update.

It’s neat and clean

OpenBSD is clean, without much in the way of bloat. It doesn’t ship with thousand of packages like, for example, Linux does.

This becomes evident during the installation process. The installer asks whether to enable SSH, or whether you intent on running a graphical interface. Since choice and freedom are two of OpenBSD’s elegances, you’re free to install any bloat you wish (try pkg_add gnome).

And there are many other advantages of using OpenBSD. Be sure to check out the project goals.

Oh, and less serious but perhaps worth mentioning, every OpenBSD release has awesome artwork and one or more songs!

I’ve tattoo’ed the mascot of OpenBSD, Puffy, on my right upper arm — perhaps that is a clear indicator to my evangelism.

My take on OpenBSD

I use OpenBSD on a daily basis, as my desktop operating systems, on network equipment, and on most of my servers.

It might not be the best choice for every situation, since it doesn’t run complex software written solely for Linux or Windows.

I have to use Linux for some of the hosting platforms I manage because of these compatibility issues. But aside from those particular situations, I have a blatantly preference for OpenBSD.

If you’re new to computers, OpenBSD serves as an excellent starting point. It will help you better understand how your computer works.

If I could go back in time and begin my experience with computers with OpenBSD, doing so would be a no-brainer!

If you’re ready to get started with OpenBSD, here are the installation instructions.