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Fear and loathing in FreeBSD, or qorg’s experiences with FreeBSD

Introduction

Not so long ago I wrote my experiences with OpenBSD. This post was about my experiences with OpenBSD but as a server, not as desktop. Using an operating system as a desktop is completely different than using it as a server.

One day I thought “damn, Linux sucks! But I have to use this because the developer of the browser that I use is an asshole!”. And had to stick to Linux for a while. But then another day I thought “Hmm, FreeBSD claims to run Linux binaries better than Linux, let’s give it a try”. Good operating systems have to sell themselves some way. And that claim worked for me. So I went to FreeBSD.org, clicked the big yellow button that says “Download FreeBSD” and downloaded the memstick image for amd64 because that’s what my computer runs.

I will be updating this site as I have more experiences with FreeBSD. So add to bookmarks!

Last update: 2022-06-21

Installation

The installation was pretty straight forward. I don’t think many people can get lost in this. I just selected ZFS as my file system (more on that later). And I don’t remember much other things in the installation. And as I forgot them. I don’t think they are very worth mentioning.

Networking

I want to connect to the internet because, among other reasons, I have a website, electronic mail and I like to talk to internet people sometimes.

Wireless connection

Sadly I no longer have the router in my room so I can’t use an ethernet cable. So I have to use the dreaded wireless card. I was very surprised when I find out this Atheros card is supported by FreeBSD so I don’t have to open the computer and put an Intel one. For the network card to work, I only had to modify the kernel booting process. Sounds very hard but it is just editing /boot/loader.conf/). I added the following lines to use the ath driver:

if_ath_load="YES"                                                    
if_ath_pci_load="YES"

Then, in /etc/rc.conf (we will talk about it later)

wlans_ath0="wlan0"
ifconfig_wlan0="up"
ifconfig_wlan0="WPA DHCP"

That will automatically start wpa_supplicant and use DHCP to get an IP address

DNS server

Normally for resolving domains you’d use a server like 8.8.8.8, 1.1.1.1 or 192.168.1.1. But I thought using local_unbound would be a good idea for this, as if i’m my own DNS resolver, I can choose what to resolve and what not to. I followed this guide to configure local_unbound, with some block lists. And I also modified /etc/dhclient.conf to use 127.0.0.1 as default DNS server. I did not setup a fallback DNS server because if my computer is up, unbound is up as well. So I don’t really need a fallback DNS server.

interface "wlan0" {
          append domain-name-servers 127.0.0.1;
}

Making the fresh installed system a desktop.

I’m no longer a Linux user. Now I am a BSD user. As such I must be aware about this “X11” thing. So I had to install the xorg package. FreeBSD comes with a binary package manager called pkg. We will talk more about this in the packages section. I just had to run # pkg install xorg. Add the user qorg to the video group and configure my .xinitrc so everytime i run startx, bspwm is started.

I had to add i915kms_load=“YES” to =/boot/loader.conf). Which is the driver for Intel integrated graphics cards. Or something like that.

As mentioned before. I had to modify my .xinitrc (something that as a former Linux user I have never done because I always used lxdm as display manager. But as FreeBSD doesn’t have lxdm available I had to get alternatives). My .xinitrc looks like this:

dunst&
xrdb .Xdefaults&
compton&
xset r rate 300 50&
feh --bg-fill ~/.wall.png 
sxhkd
exec bspwm

With that .xinitrc, running startx just works.

Package management

FreeBSD comes with 2 options to install packages: binary-based packages and port-based packages which installs packages compiling them from source code.

Binary package management

I installed an operating system because I wanted to use it. And it is impossible to use an operating system if you cannot install software in it. Fortunately, FreeBSD comes with a package manager called pkg, a very original name for a package manager. It is very simple to use, and very fast. I would say it is faster, or at least as fast as xbps, the fastest package manager I know. Using it is very simple, here a few examples:

# All these commands must be run as root.

# Install the package "emacs"
pkg install emacs
# Deinstall the package "emacs"
pkg remove emacs
# Remove all the unneeded dependencies
pkg autoremove
# List all packages that contain "edit" in its name
pkg search edit
# List all packages that contain "editor" in its comment
pkg search -S comment editor

Unfortunately, pkg comes with very insane defaults. You have to type ’y’ and then ’enter’ to confirm you want to install a package. As pkg defaults to “No”. I guess this is a security feature for some users. But as I’m too lazy to press the ’Y’ key, and I’d rather just to press enter, I edited /usr/local/etc/pkg.conf and added the following content:

# I don't want to press 'Y' everytime.
DEFAULT_ALWAYS_YES=yes
AUTOCLEAN=yes
IP_VERSION=4
# I don't want to wait to upgrade a package. I'll update my system
# only when I want :)
REPO_AUTOUPDATE=no

Source package management

Sadly I can’t talk a lot about this one because I have a very overheated machine and if I compiled something in this computer we would have the biggest destruction known to civilized man since 476 A.D.

But I can compile small software without a lot of problem.

First you have to get the port collection if you didn’t do it in the installer with the following command:

# portsnap fetch extract

Which will, fetch the port collection and extract them in /usr/ports. These ports are just a collection of Makefiles. Which will download and build the source code from you. These makefiles are very easy to work with, and also to write. As i’m the maintainer for some FreeBSD packages :)

You can also configure which CFLAGS you want by default. Just edit the /etc/make.conf file. Mine looks like this:

CFLAGS+= -O2 -pipe -march=native -mtune=native
DEVELOPER=yes
MAKE_JOBS_UNSAFE=yes

Linux emulation

As I mentioned before, what was keeping me at the Linux hell was the Web Browser known as Pale Moon. I followed the guide to run Linux software in FreeBSD. Downloaded Pale Moon, and after installing a few dependencies, yup, it worked just like if I was using it in Linux.

Then I rm -rf palemoon and moved to firefox. Don’t really know why.

Multimedia

This was kind of a pain, oss didn’t want to work for undisclosed reasons. Too lazy to install sndio. So I went the easy way and just installed pulseaudio. Call me what you will. But I want to listen to Madvillain, not say “I DON’T USE PULSEAUDIO” in the internet. I use cmus as my music player. The binary distribution of cmus comes with the PulseAudio plugin disabled so I had to install it from the ports system.

mpv and audio in FireFox just worked.

ZFS

After years of using UFS, it was time for a change. ZFS was introdouced experimentally in FreeBSD 7. And in the latest version, it is the default filesystem. This filesystem is, described by itself as “The last word in file system” That makes sense to me. They are not going to say it’s a bad filesystem if they want people to use it. And if i’m using a filesystem that takes most of my RAM, it should be good at least. And, yes, ZFS is good.

Pools and storage

“A storage pool is the most basic building block of ZFS. A pool consists of one or more vdevs, the underlying devices that store the data.”. I don’t understand any of that. But a pool must be created to create your filesystems (datasets) and volumes. In the default installation, the dataset is called “zroot”.

These “file systems” are similar to partitions. It is mounted wherever you want and has its own metadata.

Creating and configuring datasets

My friend Endemic has a lot of media that must be stored, he has lost media, music from bands no one has ever heard of and soviet movies and obscure breakcore. This kind of media has to be archived and zfs does a great work creating that. ZFS has also a compression feature, supporting a lot of compression algorithms.

So to create the zpool that I want to be mounted in /storage, I ran the following commands (as root)

# Create the pool storage in the /dev/da0 device, which is an external
# hard drive
zpool create storage /dev/da0
# Set zstd-9 compression in the pool.
zfs set compression=zstd-9 storage

And that’s it. Then when you copy big files to /storage they will be compressed. And as our CPU is fast and zstd uses a fast algorithm, you probably won’t notice that you’re actually compressing and decompressing files all the time. Which is good. You can also use zstd-19 as compression, which redouce the filesize of everything by a lot. But this has a drawback, quoting from the FreeBSD ZFS reference:

ZFS offers 19 levels of Zstd compression, each offering incrementally more space savings in exchange for slower compression. The default level is zstd-3 and offers greater compression than LZ4 without being much slower. Levels above 10 require large amounts of memory to compress each block and systems with less than 16 GB of RAM should not use them. ZFS uses a selection of the Zstd_fast_ levels also, which get correspondingly faster but supports lower compression ratios. ZFS supports zstd-fast-1 through zstd-fast-10, zstd-fast-20 through zstd-fast-100 in increments of 10, and zstd-fast-500 and zstd-fast-1000 which provide minimal compression, but offer high performance.

And as I use a ThinkPad in which I didn’t even bother on adding more RAM. I use zstd-9. Which compresses the files somehow good. You can see the stats with zfs get used,compressratio,compression,logicalused dataset.

zroot  used           64.1G           -
zroot  compressratio  1.15x           -
zroot  compression    zstd-9          local
zroot  logicalused    66.1G           -

Used is the revelant to the filesystem size. And logicalused is the size the filesystem would have without compression. So this means I have saved 2GBs thanks to zstd-9. I do not feel any performance difference.

Snapshots

We all fuck it sometime. And that is okay. What is not okay is to lose data. ZFS contains a tool to create snapshots of a dataset. Which are basically backups that restore your filesystem to a certain point. These are very useful to recover lost data. You can create a backup of your home partition like this:

zfs snapshot zroot/usr/home@(date +%F)

After creating the snapshot and completely trusting ZFS, i ran rm -rf ~/*. Which nuked my home directory and everything in it. Then I ran zfs rollback zroot/usr/home@2022-06-18 and it was restored. Like nothing ever happened. According to the FreeBSD reference, snapshots can take a lot of disk space so you should delete them as they’re no longer needed.

Other features

ZFS has features like incremental backups, encryption, RAIDS, but I haven’t tried them.

Jails

TODO