FreeBSD 5.0 looks to the enterprise

After three years in the making the FreeBSD Release 5.0 operating system has been made available to the general public.

Released towards the end of January, the OS provides first-time support for Sun's Sparc64 and Intel's IA64 platforms. And while some effort has been put into AMD's Hammer architecture, there is presently no usable support for the 64-bit mode of Hammer, said FreeBSD engineer, Scott Long.

One of the key new features of release 5.0 is that it now also includes fine-grained locking in the kernel, allowing for much higher efficiency of multi-processor systems. The traditional BSD kernel only allows a single thread of execution to be in the kernel at one time, regardless of how many CPUs have running threads, Long said.

"So, if two or more threads need to execute kernel code, only one can get in while the rest tie up their CPU waiting for their turn. Fine-grained locking allows this barrier to be lifted and multiple threads to execute at the same time in the kernel, with the arbitration of resources handled in a fine-grained manner."

What this boils down to, he said, is that "real world" applications like file and Web servers can scale better as more CPUs are added to the system.

Storage is also tackled. The GEOM storage framework allows for transparent block encryption schemes, "which then lead to interesting things like encrypted partitions and swap space". A logical volume manager is in the works, as well as several efforts to integrate software RAID functionality, he said.

Long said the FreeBSD Project was hoping as many people as possible would give the OS a try. "It's quite usable on the desktop: XFree86-4.2, KDE, Gnome, WindowMaker, and Mozilla are supported out-of-the-box, as are thousands of other applications." Other technologies now supported include Cardbus, Bluetooth, FireWire and ACPI.

But it is also in the enterprise where the FreeBSD Project expects some interest hoping that people test it out in enterprise scenarios and let the FreeBSD development team know of their successes and failures.

"We encourage enterprise users to try it and give us feedback, but it's probably not ready for adoption yet. We are hoping for 5.1 to be released where these people start seriously considering it, and we need their input and feedback now so we can deliver it."

However, he did concede that it may be best for enterprise to stick with the previous version of the OS, FreeBSD 4.7. "It is probably a better choice right now. As the fine-grained locking improves, this will hopefully be less of an issue. There are several performance issues related to this that we have identified and are working on."

Long said the reason it took almost three years to release the current version was "due to the ambition that we started out with". He said the fine-grained locking effort required a tremendous amount of work and exposed countless bugs that were hidden by the traditional BSD semantics. Also, the state of the economy has been a factor.

"People have less free time to work on FreeBSD, and companies are less willing to fund engineers to work on it. We've been extremely fortunate that companies like Yahoo, Apple, NAI Labs, and The Weather Channel have been generous enough to employ many of our senior developers to continue their work on FreeBSD."

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