Interview with MidnightBSD Founder and Lead Dev Lucas Holt
Recently, I have taken a little dip into the world of BSD. As part of my attempt to understand the BSD world a little better, I connected with Lucas Holt (MidnightBSD founder and lead developer) to ask him a few questions about his project. Here are his answers.
It’s FOSS: Please explain MidnightBSD in a nutshell. How is it different than other BSDs?
Lucas Holt: MidnightBSD is a desktop focused operating system. When it’s considered stable, it will provide a full desktop experience. This differs from other efforts such as TrueOS or GhostBSD in that it’s not a distro of FreeBSD, but rather a fork. MidnightBSD has its own package manager, mport as well as unique package cluster software and several features built into user land such as mDNSresponder, libdispatch, and customizations throughout the system.
It’s FOSS: Who is MidnightBSD aimed at?
Lucas Holt: The goal with MidnightBSD has always been to provide a desktop OS that’s usable for everyday tasks and that even somewhat non technical people can use. Early versions of Mac OS X were certainly an inspiration. In practice, we’re rather far from that goal at this point, but it’s been an excellent learning opportunity.
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It’s FOSS: What is your background in computers?
Lucas Holt: I started in technical support at a small ISP and moved into web design and system administration. While there, I learned BSDi, Solaris and Linux. I also started tinkering with programming web apps in ASP and a little perl CGI. I then did a mix of programming and system administration jobs through college and graduated with a bachelors in C.S. from Eastern Michigan University. During that time, I learned NetBSD and FreeBSD. I started working on several projects such as porting Apple’s HFS+ code to FreeBSD 6 and working on getting the nforce2 chipset SATA controller working with FreeBSD 6, with the latter getting committed. I got a real taste for BSD and after seeing the lack of interest in the community for desktop BSDs, I started MidnightBSD. I began work on it in late 2005.
Currently, I’m a Senior Software Engineer focusing on backend rest services by day and a part-time graduate student at the University of Michigan Flint.
It’s FOSS: I recently installed TrueOS. I was disappointed that a couple of the programs I wanted were not available. The FreeBSD port system looked mildly complicated for beginners. I’m used to using pacman to get the job done quickly. How does MidnightBSD deal with ports?
Lucas Holt: MidnightBSD has it’s own port system, mports, which shared similarities with FreeBSD ports as well as some ideas from OpenBSD. We decided early on that decent package management was essential for regular users. Power users will still use ports for certain software, but it’s just so time consuming to build everything. We started work on our own package manager, mport.
Every package is a tar lzma archive with a sqlite3 manifest file as well as a sqlite 3 index that’s downloaded from our server. This allows users to query and customize the package system with standard SQL queries. We’re also building more user friendly graphical tools.
Package availability is another issue that most BSDs have. Software tends to be written for one or two operating systems and many projects are reluctant to support other systems, particularly smaller projects like MidnightBSD. There are certainly gaps. All of the BSD projects need more volunteers to help with porting software and keeping it up to date.
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It’s FOSS: During your June 2015 interview on BSDNow, you mentioned that even though you support both i386 and amd64, that you recommend people choose amd64. Do you have any plans to drop i386 support in the future, like many have done?
Lucas Holt: Yes, we do plan to drop i386 support, mostly because of the extra work needed to build and maintain packages. I’ve held off on this so far because I had a lot of feedback from users in South America that they still needed it. For now, the plan is to keep i386 support through 1.0 release. That’s probably a year or two out.
It’s FOSS: What desktop environments does MidnightBSD support?
Lucas Holt: The original plan was to use Etoile as a desktop environment, but that project changed focus. We currently support Xfce, Gnome 3, WindowMaker + GNUstep + Gworkspace as primary choices. We also have several other window managers and desktop environments available such as Enlightenment, rat poison, afterstep, etc.
Early versions offered KDE 3.x but we had some issues with KDE 4. We may revisit that with newer versions.
It’s FOSS: What is MidnightBSD’s default filesystem? Do you support DragonflyBSD’s HAMMER filesystem? What other filesystems?
Lucas Holt: Boot volumes are UFS2. We also support ZFS for additional storage. We have read support for ExFat, NTFS, ext2, CD9660. NFS v3 and v4 are also supported for network file systems.
We do not support HAMMER, although it was considered. I would love to see HAMMER2 get added to MidnightBSD eventually.
It’s FOSS: Is MidnightBSD affected by the recent Spectre and Meltdown issues?
Lucas Holt: Yes. Most operating systems were affected by these issues. We were not informed of the issue until the general public became aware. Work is ongoing to come up with appropriate mitigations. Unfortunately, we do not have a patch yet.
It’s FOSS: The Raspberry Pi and its many clones have made the ARM platform very popular. Are there any plans to make MidnightBSD available on that platform?
Lucas Holt: No immediate plans. ARM is an interesting architecture, but by the very nature of SoC designs, takes a lot of work to support a broad number of devices. It might be possible when we stop supporting i386 or if someone volunteers to work on the ARM port.
Eventually, I think most hobby systems will need to run ARM chips. Intel’s planning on locking down hardware with UEFI 3 and this may make it difficult to run on commodity hardware in the future not only for MidnightBSD but other systems as well.
At one point, MidinightBSD ran on sparc64. When workstations were killed off, we dropped support. A desktop OS on a server platform makes little sense.
It’s FOSS: Does MidnightBSD offer support for Linux applications?
Lucas Holt: Yes, we offer Linux emulation. It’s emulating a 2.6.16 kernel currently and that needs to be updated so support newer apps. It’s possible to run semi-recent versions of Firefox, Thunderbird, Java, and OpenOffice on it though. I’ve also used it to host game servers in the past and play older games such as Quake 3, enemy territory, etc.
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It’s FOSS: Could you comment on the recent dust-up between the Pale Moon browser developers and the team behind the OpenBSD ports system?
[Author’s Note: For those who haven’t heard about this, let me summarize. Last month, someone from the OpenBSD team added the Pale Moon browser to their ports collection. A Pale Moon developer demanded that they include Pale Moon’s libraries instead of using system libraries. As the conversation continued, it got more hostile, especially on the Pale Moon side. The net result is that Pale Moon will not be available on OpenBSD, MidnightBSD, or FreeBSD.]
Lucas Holt: I found this discussion frustrating. Many of the BSD projects hear a lot of complaints about browser availability and compatibility. With Firefox moving to Rust, it makes it even more difficult. Then you get into branding issues. Like Firefox, the Pale Moon developers have decided to protect their brand at the cost of users. Unlike the Firefox devs, they’ve made even stranger requirements for branding. It is not possible to use a system library version of anything with Pale Moon and keep their branding requirements. As such, we cannot offer Pale Moon in MidnightBSD.
The reason this is an issue for an open source project is that many third party libraries are used in something as complex as a web browser. For instance, Gecko-based browsers use several multimedia libraries, sqlite3 (for bookmarks), audio and video codecs, etc. Trying to maintain upstream patches for each of these items is difficult. That’s why the BSDs have ports collections to begin with. It allows us to track and manage custom patches to make all these libraries work. We go through a lot of effort in keeping these up to date. Sometimes upstream patches don’t get included. That means our versions are the only working copies. With pale moon’s policy, we’d need to submit separate patches to their customized versions of all these libraries too and any new release of the browser would not be available as changes occur. It might not even be possible to compile pale moon without a patch locally.
With regard to Rust, it requires porting the language, as well as an appropriate version of LLVM before you can even start on the browser.
It’s FOSS: If someone wanted to contribute to your project, both financial and technical, how can they do that?
Lucas Holt: Financial assistance for the project can be submitted online. We have a page outlining how to make donations with Patreon, Paypal or via bitcoin. Donations are not tax deductible. You can learn more at http://www.midnightbsd.org/donate/
We also need assistance with translations, porting applications, and working on the actual OS. Interested parties can contact us on the mailing list or through IRC on freenode #midnightbsd We also could use assistance with mirroring ISOs and packages.
I would like to thank Lucas for taking the time to reply to my many questions. For more information about MidnightBSD or to download it, please visit their website. The most recent version of MidnightBSD is 0.8.6.
Have you ever played around with MidnightBSD? What is your favorite version of BSD?
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