Sehnsucht runs BSD

I’m 24-years-old Italian Medicine student and apprentice (6th year at Sapienza University of Rome), free-time Unix and retro-computing/gaming passionate. My other interests include philosophy, rock and classical music, inline-hockey/skating, skiing, mountain biking, black & white movies and seinen manga.

I’ve been a computer geek practically since I have memory. Living in the country-side and lacking easy means of transport I was often held back from playing with other kids and this resulted in me spending a significant portion of my time playing 15/18+ games (Doom, UT, Shadow Warrior, Daggerfall, Max Payne) and hacking around on computers. I recently came to the conclusion that most people of my age first came in contact with computer software either through Windows XP or OS X Leopard; this results in them not being comfortable with command line and expecting the computer to automatically do things for them. That’s neither bad or unfortunate, it’s just a matter of fact. Yet, my story went a little bit different, and I think it gave me the chance to learn a lot while having tons of fun.

My family got its first PC in ‘98, second-handed and practically for free, thanks to my uncle performing a hardware upgrade towards P6 Pentium and letting us take his 1993 IBM PS/1 (486SX, 6MB RAM, 512MB IDE HDD, currently sold for parts), which used to come with PC-DOS 6.0 and Windows 3.1. My uncle taught me the basic commands to type in order to launch games. As a 5 years old and curious kid, whose favourite toy up to that moment had been a fake laptop, I immediately fell in love with it. With the passing of time I started wanting to know more about DOS, try new commands and quickly became the first tech-aware person in my family (my parents both still have great limitations in using Windows or Android nowadays), albeit I managed to mess the system up several times, in spite of all the core files having ATTRIB set to +RSH. By the turning of Millennium, with the spread of PCs, Internet, Windows and MS Office in offices and schools, we needed a machine capable of running modern 32-bit Office and IE versions. In Jan '01, my mother told a programmer friend of her to build us a brand new machine, which turned out being a fabulous PC, equipped with a Netburst Pentium IV, 256 MB RAM, running Windows ME on a FAT32-formatted 60G storage (currently running Illumos, Tribblix 0m20.4 x86 on UFS), with a remote-band dial-up 27 kbit/s connection, which can be easily accounted as my favourite PC of all times.

Every Sunday morning at the newsstand, I used to buy a magazine named “Games for My Computer” which usually came bounded with great game titles, mods, patches, reviews, demos, shareware, up to date DirectX, at the modicum cost of 3-5 euros. As the years passed by, I started buying other software-related magazines, until my attention was caught by an article speaking of the proprietary UNIX system history and its derivatives. It intrigued me so much, that I spent the following days doing researches on this fantastic OS, and the other CPU archs than x86/IA-64 it ran on, all of which I had been completely unaware of until that moment.

I wanted to learn use it, and Solaris was the one which looked most promising and interesting to me at first sight, although running it was obviously completely out of question, being it a server/workstation oriented OS meant for professional usage, running on way too expensive hardware, in a time when all I needed was a simple notebook for high school supporting an office suite and few more programs. I had already made up my mind to either buy a MacBook or get a Mandriva CD and Linux-supported laptop, when I discovered about the pending release of OpenSolaris: open source Solaris with focus on desktop including the latest GNOME, Firefox, Adobe Flash Player and OpenOffice versions: “that’s it”, I thought, and few months later I had my parents order a Toshiba Tecra M10 based on Centrino 2 platform (Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz, 4GB RAM DDR2, Intel Wireless, currently running OpenIndiana 2018.04) coming with OpenSolaris 2008.05 pre-installed. Everything worked out of the box, exactly as I expected, even better and I began appreciating the value of FOSS.

I spent a lot of time playing with it, especially on customizing GNOME2 (it was so good! still using MATE now) and attending DeviantArt, in accordance with my previous experience with Windows XP customization. I remember the eye-candy OpenSolaris screenshot on DeviantArt by Vermaden. I learned about general Unix command line, started shell scripting, and decided to pick up some Java programming basics (OpenSolaris included NetBeans) as a self-taught.

After the Sun acquisition by Oracle and the following OpenSolaris withdrawal, I kept using it as long as it was worthwhile (c. 2011). Later on, after having briefly considered the possibility of OpenIndiana, I decided I wanted to try something new, with a wider software availability. Providing I wanted to see how Windows was faring too, I ended up switching back to Windows and installed 7. During the last 3 high school years in fact, my interest towards software as leisure-activity was progressively eclipsed by other things, mainly friends, girls, books, the hockey championship. Choosing what to do of my life turned out quite the hard task: I loved many things, especially physics, biology, Latin and Greek, computer science and philosophy. But I knew myself all too well, I knew where my path was headed, I wanted to help people, and realized my choice had been taken already.

At University, I slowly began missing all that geeky stuff and started thinking about installing a Unix OS and dedicate part of my spare time to it once again. I remembered reading about the BSD OS family and downloaded FreeBSD 9.3 in late 2013, putting it on the Toshiba first (on UFS2), and later on on a 2011 Samsung NP-R519 (even this one, fully supported) laptop, which my father gave me after having totally messed it up and giving up with it, even though he told me he had been forced to buy more powerful hardware for his job (the program he needed didn’t require more than 300 MB RAM). I loved FreeBSD and its Handbook from the very first time. Well-designed OS, stable, and consistent, very featured userland especially in regard of networking tools, amazingly performing. The community (and the BSD community in general) is very friendly, competent, professional, but also prone to joke and have some fun from time to time. FreeBSD increased my interest towards netsec, firewalls and servers, until I ended up building a cheap FreeBSD box serving as a FTPS NAS first, and jailed NextCloud on AMP stack next, behind a IPFW firewall. This was mainly for learning/fun purposes. In the meantime, I’ve also experienced setting up a media server (Plex, Icecast + MPD-httpd, and LAN UPnP with minidlad + Kodi client). Thanks to this, I learned a lot about networking and security, and FreeBSD tools and documentation surely made that job smoother. Lately I’ve also found the time to try bhyve and I must admit developers did an amazing job improving it in the last few years. It’s become a serious, neat and performing hypervisor to the point I think it’s significantly underrated (Joyent wouldn’t have ported it to Illumos otherwise, already having KVM!). Around a year ago my savings reached a dignitous-enough amount to allow me to buy and build a custom desktop PC (not calling it workstation, cause that’s not the case). It currently runs FreeBSD 11.2 on ZFS with a FVWM desktop, residing inside the rented flat I share with a colleague in Rome, I also use it as a MPD music station with a SNDIO backend (+a couple of good speakers), as host for bhyve and VBox VMs (the OpenSuSE VM is dedicated to Netflix and Spotify), native FOSS and Wine gaming: I discovered that many games I used to play in the early '00s actually work very well under wine, so I’m having great fun on it; also, here I want to thank the #openbsd-gaming community, and Pertho in particular, for hosting the Quake Tournaments.

Meanwhile, I got bored again and decided to try other OSs. I tried Linux, Illumos, the other BSDs, and FreeDOS.

Be it PC-DOS nostalgia, but I became immediately committed to the FreeDOS community and development, participated to mailing lists, deployed FreeDOS retro-gaming stations for friends, while starting over playing a lot of 16-bit games, wrote tutorials, went back using Corel Word Perfect 6.22 as my writing suite, started learning C on it, analyzing FreeDOS internals through Pat Villani’s FreeDOS kernel book, reported bugs on new OpenGEM desktop release, and even committed some patches. Currently I run FreeDOS on my mother’s old Acer TravelMate (from 2000).

Trying Illumos instead brought my old Solaris love back to life and even enhanced it. SMF, RBAC, CrossBow, Zones, SunStudio and the fantastic Solaris userland are still there kicking. OpenIndiana is the spiritual continuation of OpenSolaris anthe most true to it. I run OI-Hipster on my Samsung laptop with a fluxbox desktop. In the future I’d like to actively contribute to the IPS OpenCSW community repo. Tribblix is a very well-thought piece of software. The fact it’s only maintained by a single person (who’s actually also quite keen to help users) really puzzles me: clean, lightweight Illumos distribution, still supporting SPARC and x86, with a fantastic packaging system (zap overlays) and up to date software, what else could I ask? It brought my old Pentium IV PC back to life, showing off some true old school taste with the latest CDE 2.3.0 release. My plans for (a rather distant, due to lack of time and money) future include buying a Sun Blade 1000 and building a v9OS (Illumos distro) SPARC box.

The BSDs are all terribly alluring. It’s incredible how different they can be from one another (well, that’s what happens after 25 years of divergent development with different goals in mind), and how each one is perfect in its own way and still carries great advantages over the others. From my perspective, there’s no clear winner among BSDs: they all do exactly what they’re thought for in a (almost) shameless way.

Personally speaking, given my tastes, and priorities, I came to the conclusion that the only BSD I like (slightly) more than FreeBSD, is NetBSD. NetBSD is fun to use. I find it difficult to explain, but it’s a really enjoyable OS. It has those uncommon yet effective design choices which make you stop and say: “hey, that’s brilliant!”. NetBSD stands firm on its roots and is still very Unixist, actually in my opinion the most consistent with 386BSD. NetBSD is extremely simple, neat, lightweight, versatile, and portable. Performs wonderfully on limited specs, old hardware, older archs and especially embedded hardware. ARM SoCs support is astonishing, and it’s improving fast, especially on aarch64. Xen dom0, pkgsrc, NPF, Rump Kernels, KASLR, nouveau, LVM, the almost ready ZFS, are other great features.

Currently I run NetBSD on the old Toshiba, on my Rpi3 and on Pinebook (both through aarch64 port). The Rpi3 works as NPF firewall, while I use the Pinebook as IceWM desktop. I’ve successfully carried out some nerd experiments on NetBSD, like running 4 Xen domU VMs at the same time, building and running NeverWinter Nights Linux client under the SuSE compat layer, setting up my mother’s private office router as a NetBSD box, building a NetBSD/HEAD Cinnamon desktop using pkgswc-wip, deploying my personal Mail Server (OpenSMTPd, Dovecot, Rspamd, dkimproxy, SquirreMail, NPF, Squid, Clamav): eventually dismantled it due to time and money required to maintain it and compared to advantages. Fastmail user now! I’ve seen many people using NetBSD as learning platform: indeed I continue learning C on it.

In the last year I’ve been into *BSD and Illumos advocacy a lot on social media. Those OSs are often undeservedly ignored and should get more attention as examples of Unix done the right way. Wish I could also help user Trihexagonal with his tutorials on FreeBSD desktop. For the moment, I’m just contributing with screenshots. I think so far I managed to bring to BSD no more than a couple of pen friends known on *nix fora, one to OpenBSD and OI-Hipster, the other to NetBSD. An Italian friend of mine (IT graduate) decided to put FreeBSD on Chromebook, after hearing me talking about it. My interest towards FreeBSD, led me to make new precious acquaintances, especially Scott Robbins (scottro), veteran admin and fantastic person, with whom I keep corresponding by mail.

In contrast with some Linux users spawning Arch Linux installs on their relatives/friends/partners laptops, I’m of the opinion people mustn’t be forced, neither allured or convinced with false promises. People need to be shown, providing they have the time and the will to hear, make up their minds by their own-selves, and only then see whether the red pill is suited for them or not. This more or less applies to every single field of knowledge, not solely operating systems: for instance, it applies to Medicine too.

Find me on FreeBSD Forums and DaemonForums (@Sehnsucht94), as well as Mastodon and Twitter.

21 Aug 2018

RunBSD is maintained by Mischa Peters and Roman Zolotarev.