BSDi Unix buy reshapes open source

In a major upheaval in the open-source software market, Wind River Systems acquires Berkeley Software Design's version of Unix.

Stephen Shankland
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Open-source nature appealing to Wind River
Tom St. Dennis, CEO, Wind River
In a major upheaval in the open-source software market, Wind River Systems has acquired Berkeley Software Design's version of Unix, merging the realms of proprietary and freely shared software.

But Wind River likes the BSDi software as much for its open-source nature as the fact that it doesn't have to stay open source. When selling its operating systems for use in nontraditional embedded devices such as set-top boxes, handheld computers or network routers, the company needs to be able to make changes that aren't released to the public, said John Fogelin, general manager of Wind River's platforms group.

BSDi is the owner of the BSD/OS, the version of Unix that's a close relative to open-source projects FreeBSD, OpenBSD and NetBSD. BSDi supports FreeBSD as well as BSD/OS. Under the terms of the BSD license, though, anyone may keep modifications secret--the very feature that made BSDi's software, not its cousin Linux, appeal to Wind River.

"It's clear open source is a vital part of how software is being created," Fogelin said, but "the licensing restriction around the Linux movement...has significantly hamstrung the ability to embed the operating system. This restriction does not exist in the BSD movement."

Wind River, the dominant company in the embedded market, has been grappling with the arrival of Linux in much the same way that Microsoft faces competition from the upstart operating system for servers. The newer arrival not only can be used for free, but also a large and lively programmer community is constantly improving the operating system. Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer has called Linux the company's No. 1 threat.

While Linux started in servers, companies such as Red Hat, MontaVista Software and Lineo have been working hard to push Linux into the embedded market as well. And LynuxWorks, formerly known as Lynx Real-Time Systems and one of Wind River's traditional competitors, has moved to embrace Linux as well.

Montavista Chief Executive James Ready disputed Wind River's belief that the Linux license rules it out for the embedded market.

"It's utter nonsense, and we have the customers to prove it," said Ready. "We have never run into a customer having an issue with intellectual property and Linux."

There's no problem using proprietary software such as a device driver with Linux, Ready said, and Wind River had other motives in mind when it embraced BSD. "They're afraid of Linux, but they had to do something about what Linux represents," he said.

Wind River acquired BSDi's software, along with 50 of its employees and Jordan Hubbard, one of the leaders of the FreeBSD project. In addition, Wind River will provide financial backing for the FreeBSD effort and will keep some of its own software there.

"Some of our code will be proprietary and managed in a separate tree, and some of our code will be maintained at FreeBSD," Fogelin said. A code "tree" is the collection of software and updates used by a group of programmers.

Wind River customers often prefer to keep secret some improvements to the operating system--for example, network communication or video decompression software. In the embedded world, unlike the server world, such changes are made at a deep level, making it difficult to keep the public software separate from the proprietary software, he said.

The General Public License that covers Linux doesn't allow this mixing at the deepest level.

Linux fans, unsurprisingly, defend their license, and companies such as Red Hat believe mandatory openness is an advantage. If one company can control software, those considering it for their products will fear a company such as Microsoft will have too much control.

Of the 100 or BSDi employees not being offered jobs at Wind River, about 50 will continue on selling BSD computer systems under the new company name iXsystems and the other 50 will be laid off, Hubbard said.

BSD has been making some inroads into the embedded realm with companies such as Wasabi Systems using NetBSD.

Wasabi said Wind River's move is good news for BSD, but argues that NetBSD is a better foundation than FreeBSD because NetBSD is better designed to run on a variety of different CPUs.

Wind River will provide funding for the FreeBSD effort for advertising, promotion and access to retail outlets, Fogelin said.

Wind River's backing will help the commercial prospects of FreeBSD, Hubbard said. "People in the BSD community are very proud of their operating system, but there comes a point in the relationship where every customer in the project needs to go a little farther than the project can take them on a pure volunteer level," Hubbard said.

FreeBSD will be used in products such as telecommunication devices, gateways to link home PCs to broadband connections and servers to "cache" Internet information closer to the computers that need it, Fogelin said.

Wind River co-founder and Chairman Jerry Fiddler said there will be a blurring of the lines between the company's proprietary VxWorks operating system and FreeBSD, with similar programming tools and higher-level software.

Although Wind River by rights could have simply used whatever FreeBSD software it wanted to without acquiring BSDi, "that would have been a discredit to the assets (of BSDi), which includes some of the who's who of Unix developers," Fiddler said.