How I fell in love with OpenBSD

I love open source. Opposed to proprietary software, open source software is extendable, auditable and customizeable. Often, it is the result of hard labor and effort by hundreds or thousand of enthusiastic, passionate developers collaborating on an idea or shared goal. Together, they make the world a better place, bit by bit.

Open source forms the fundamentals for modern technology. Your computer, tablet and smartphone, your household devices and screen-based entertainment, the ability to do a transaction within a second - with merely a plastic card - or to contact your beloved ones - it is all powered by open source. Either directly or indirectly. Open source was used in the origins of computers, the internet and the world wide web. If there was no open source, we probably wouldn’t have the technology we use every single day. Often, we don’t give it much thought - though this really fascinates me.

As a security and privacy evangelist, I use open source software - due to being auditable and verifiable. This leads me to my favorite open source project: the 25-year-old OpenBSD operating system.

The origins of my love story

Ever since we got our first computer - when I was six, I have been fascinated by the technology powering the device. We had some really fun games on it, but I was more interested in the two processors, the harddisk of 45MB, 4MB RAM and the software that made this device run. 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. As a scholar, I traded games and applications, instead of marbles like most scholars did.

Years later, when I left my elementary school for a high school, I met and befriended Giel, who introduced me to one of the first Red Hat releases. 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. By the time I turned seventeen, I was a fulltime OpenBSD user.

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.

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).

The installation process if very straight forward. From booting the installer to booting the installed OpenBSD for the first time, it all takes a mere ten minutes. 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!

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 are ready to get started with OpenBSD, here are the installation instructions.