FreeBSD milestone nears release

The most significant update in years of the FreeBSD operating system is due to enter beta testing mid-August. It will boost performance on multi-processor systems and allow the use of Windows drivers for network cards, say the people behind it

FreeBSD, the free operating system that enjoys a growing and extremely loyal following, is nearing a code freeze for its most significant update in years.

Scott Long, the software engineer leading the release work, has posted an update saying that he expects to freeze the code for version 5.3 on 15 August, meaning that the code will enter beta testing then. Speaking to ZDNet UK, Long said he is hoping to release the final product on 1 October.

The 5.x development branch of FreeBSD has suffered some stability problems in the past, said Long, and most users have stuck to version 4.10 for production environments. He hopes many of those users will be persuaded to upgrade to version 5.3.

The whole version 5 series is about trying to get more performance out of multi-processor systems, said Long. "The 5.3 release will be the first one where we see the real benefits of that. The multithreaded network stack will outperform everything we've done before, for running applications such as Apache or MySQL." Long said users can expect a typical performance improvement of up to 30 percent in such applications, but cautioned that this is still a "very preliminary" figure.

FreeBSD 5.3 will also introduce a software layer that lets Windows network drivers work with FreeBSD. This layer, dubbed Project Evil, means that wired and wireless network cards should be able to work with FreeBSD even if the manufacturers have not written any drivers for the operating system.

"Bill Paul (a fellow core team member) has done the work there," said Long. "His method was to write a Windows emulation layer that provides the API (application programming interface) hooks that the drivers use. It seems to work for quite a number of drivers so far."

"But the big thing we're pushing," he said, "is stability. We won't release this until it is ready."

Stability is one of the biggest attractions for FreeBSD users, some of whom donate money to individual FreeBSD developers to aid development. Version 5.3 of the operating system is the first to be created using formal lab testing procedures, said Long. "We have proper procedures set up to test stability, whereas before we relied on the community. It's been very interested because we have been able to get immediate feedback on the performance, which is nice."

Once this version is out of the door the core developers will start work on version 5.4, which should improve driver performance. A February 2005 release date is planned for this version. "Then the plan is to have new releases every four to five months," said Long. A new development branch, for version 6.0 will also begin, which will focus on the storage subsystem. That work is expected to take two years.