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Run like the devil, or like a penguin

By SoupIsGood Food, (, July 9, 2002

So! You got yourself a Mac, but you don’t want to run the Macintosh operating system for some deranged reason. Well, that’s okay, because the free software community has got you covered. Here’s a run-down of the OS choices available to the average iMac owner.

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BSD Unix is descended from the mutant offspring of a hacked copy of the very first Unix at the University of California, Berkeley. (BSD stands for Berkeley Software Distribution, though it seems to have escaped the lab and is now busily devouring Cupertino. Can it be tamed with GUI goodness? Tune into the next exciting episode!)

The people who participate in the various BSD projects are very committed to free software, and two of the three BSD projects are democratic and egalitarian even in the way they’re run. BSDs are noted for their great documentation, innovative Ports Tree software distribution system, and cohesive, well-planned integration of software components. Experienced command-line cowboys appreciate the simple, straightforward administration and installation tools. If I come across as a big BSD fan, it’s because I am. (Though I’m a bit puzzled by Apple’s implementation of it. Ah, well, there’s always Fink to make it more like ... Debian?)

NetBSD – This is one of the two branches of the original 386BSD OS, back in the early ’90s. The developers were sick of being stuck on x86 systems (and who could blame them?) so they undertook to port BSD Unix to everything with a microchip. The focus is clean code and straightforward systems administration, and they’ve really hit the mark. This OS will run on everything from a Mac LC III to a new PowerBook G4.

OpenBSD – OpenBSD was designed with one goal: security. The way the OpenBSD crew set about to lock down its OS was to weed out all of the bugs. The group has a programming technique called a "code audit" where it finds a bug, then finds everywhere that bug could be repeated in the source code. The end result is software that is rock-solid steady and immune to security exploits that rely on small mistakes and loopholes in the code. With the new "pf" packet filtering software, it’s the single best platform I can think of to run a firewall on. The downside is that it’s geared mostly to x86, and won’t run on all models of PowerPC Macs, especially older PowerBooks. It’s fine on a lot of old-school 68k macs, and recent iMacs, G4s and the newer Apple notebooks.

There’s Linux, and then there’s GNU/Linux. The difference between the two? Nothing. They’re both referring to Unix OSes based on the Linux kernel. There are a lot of those – when someone says "Linux," don’t assume he or she is referring to a unified operating system, but to any number of vastly different operating systems based around a Linux kernel, called a distribution, or distro for short. Not all Linux distros run on a Mac, but the ones below do.

Yellow Dog Linux – Mac first, Mac only, and with a horrible reputation for arcane system utilities, buggy software and poor layout. Still, if you want Red Hat Linux, this is the closest you’ll get to it on a Mac, and you can also buy support contracts from Terra Soft if you need hand holding. The biggest reason to get Yellow Dog is to get Black Lab.

Black Lab Linux – A killer add-on to YDL that’s designed for high-performance clustered computing. Very sexy stuff if you’re into crunching big numbers with your collection of G4 systems. Don’t laugh – with the advent of the Xserve, Apple has some serious computing hardware in a small, efficient package. Black Lab lets you use that with a stripped and simple OS ... OS X has some overhead required by a desktop or server that can get in the way of pure performance applications.

Debian GNU/Linux – The penultimate free operating system. Like NetBSD, it’s not created or maintained by a company, but by a democratic organization of developers. The emphasis is on a cohesive collection of useable, stable software. So while the other distros include all the latest versions of the hottest software, Debian makes sure the bugs are squashed before it allows them into its distro. It uses the awesome "apt" software install system, the best in the Linux field, but it also has the worst installer.

Mandrake Linux - Mandrake has the friendliest installer, and puts you right into a familiar GUI desktop environment. It uses the execrable Red Hat Package Manager, like all the Linuxes except Debian, but its system administration utilities are top-notch, and its support organization is great.

SuSe Linux – This German company has a rep as being a top-notch Linux vendor for enterprise computing, and it’s well-deserved. A no-nonsense commercial distro, and great if you want to learn what the big boys run on their boxes.

MkLinux – It has everything a Linux distro usually has ... except for the Linux kernel. It uses the Mach kernel instead. Not very useful for the latest machines, but it supports old PowerPC systems. To be honest, I’m not certain it’s still maintained (you’ll notice that getting useful information out of any of these free software sites is like pulling teeth).

Did I miss any from the list? Do you have any of the above running on one of your own boxes? Share the tale below!

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