FreeBSD vs OpenBSD: Which is Right for You?

FreeBSD vs OpenBSD. Which is more secure? Which is faster? Which is generally superior? Both have their strengths and weaknesses, and both appeal to different audiences depending on needs.

Our open-source experts sat down to cover some of the major differences between these two platforms in order to help you choose the right one for you. So, let’s get into it!

FreeBSD vs OpenBSD: Overview

Both FreeBSD and OpenBSD are true UNIX operating systems by pedigree. They’re based on the Berkeley Software Distribution series.

The first question to answer, like with any tool, is what sort of problem are you attempting to solve? Because OpenBSD and FreeBSD are not equally suited for every situation.

The OpenBSD project is focused on portability, standardization, “correctness”, proactive security, and cryptography. Security is one of its greatest strengths. It integrates cutting-edge security technology for building firewalls and private network services. Their team consistently performs extensive, ongoing code audits for security and functionality. It’s also intended to “ship” as a largely complete system so users can get up-and-running as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, FreeBSD features advanced networking, security, and storage features. It’s also quite fast with high scalability potential. This is why many huge firms utilize it, such as Netflix, Sony, and Apple. The developers intend to deliver a small system stripped of unnecessary components to promote a speedy experience with high customization capabilities. Their ports collection features nearly 40,000 packages that can be installed easily and with no need for additional configuration to work with FreeBSD.

If you’re constructing a long-term storage server and need a highly robust filesystem with a strong focus on data integrity, FreeBSD is the only option. This is because ZFS has yet to be translated to OpenBSD and FFS lacks the integrity capabilities that ZFS does.

Cost

Both OpenBSD and FreeBSD are free. The binaries are free and so is the source. You can download and try them both out without spending a dime. This is great, because it allows you to try them both out, if you’re so inclined, and figure out which is a better fit for your needs.

Additional costs may be incurred for hardware and support, but the systems themselves don’t cost anything.

Licenses

Both have nearly identical licenses. FreeBSD utilizes a BSD license that does not put requirements on redistribution. You can essentially make any adjustments you want to the source code and even create a closed-source project from it. This license offers a great deal of freedom, especially when compared with the General Public License utilized by Linux. If you make modifications to the Linux kernel, you legally have to release your source code.

OpenBSD prefers the ISC license and variations of the BSD license. The ISC license is very similar to the BSD license, however, it’s simplified. Therefore, it doesn’t use language that it considers unnecessary. Uses are free to use the code as they see fit. They can create proprietary work from already established code and charge people to utilize it.

FreeBSD vs OpenBSD Performance

This is the biggest question; which one performs better? Most developers familiar with both will confirm that FreeBSD has a clear edge over OpenBSD when it comes to performance. Phoronix ran a comparison of several open-source systems. They found that OpenBSD was better than FreeBSD when it came to Timed SQLite insertions and a couple of other tests. However, FreeBSD outperformed OpenBSD on most other fronts. When it came to their read, write, compile, file compression, and initial create tests, FreeBSD beat OpenBSD.

FreeBSD provides a base system that is smaller than OpenBSD, with only absolutely necessary components included. This gives it an edge on speed out-of-the-box. OpenBSD comes installed with additional components that they think will fill the needs of most users and allow them to get up-and-running faster. Therefore, some developers appreciate the stripped-down approach of FreeBSD and consider OpenBSD to be “bloated.” But, since both are open-source, you can remove and add essentially anything that you want.

Recent releases from FreeBSD have received criticism due to the inclusion of larger tool components, such as bhyve and ZFS, in the base system.  The counter to that is that these features are some of the best FreeBSD has to offer.

Security

OpenBSD makes security one of their premier concerns. It comes with numerous security features out of the box. The developers highly scrutinize the code multiple times a year to ensure that any concerns are addressed. They even market themselves as “more secure than FreeBSD.” It integrates state-of-the-art security tech for building firewalls and private network services.

However, FreeBSD is no slouch when it comes to security. Security is a major concern for its developers and it edges out most other open-source systems when it comes to security.

Neither of these platforms will leave you wanting much more on this front, but we’d have to give a slight edge to OpenBSD.

Third-Party Applications

FreeBSD is a more popular platform than OpenBSD. Therefore, it has more applications in its ports collection. In fact, it has about four times as many applications, nearly 40,000 currently. Each of these packages is ready to go on the system, so you don’t have to worry about configuring it. If this is important to you, you’re probably better off using FreeBSD.

Some of the third-party software products included in the base system for OpenBSD are: X.org, LLVM/Clang, Perl, ncurses, binutils, gdb, and libfido2.

Ease-of-Use

OpenBSD is built to be very simple and secure. One of their key goals is to reduce the amount of customization and fine-tuning that users have to do. They intend to make it as out-of-the-box of a system as they possibly can. This does make it less dynamic than FreeBSD, but it does make it easier to use.

When you download FreeBSD, you’ll probably need to install at least a few packages from the ports collection. It is more organized and easy to set up than Linux (if you’d like to learn more, check out our post on FreeBSD vs. Linux), but we’d still have to give the edge to OpenBSD on this one.

Scalability

There’s not much of a contest on this one, FreeBSD is more scalable than OpenBSD. OpenBSD is great for small to medium systems, but there’s a reason that more large corporations use FreeBSD. Its performance, organization, and third-party support make it generally more suitable for large operations. However, some well-known governmental departments do use OpenBSD, such as FEMA and the Social Security Administration.

Usage

Neither system is ideal for desktop environments, instead their primary usage is for powering servers and embedded platforms. However, some users do like OpenBSD for desktop, because it’s painfully simple. FreeBSD is capable of being used as a desktop OS with the right packages installed. The ports and packages collection includes numerous desktop environments that can be easily installed. Some popular ones are GNOME, Xfce, Lumina, and KDE Software Compilation 4.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is OpenBSD Safer Than FreeBSD?

If you’re designing a system with a strong focus on security with no other considerations, OpenBSD is the superior choice because it comes with a lot of security features built in. Not only that, but the code is always subjected to stringent security audits, and the base system has a large number of apps that have been subjected to the same scrutiny. Similarly, a number of third-party software components (starting with X.Org Server and working down the list) come with OpenBSD-specific security fixes.

It is important to keep in mind that this difference is a “high level theoretical” security approach, and for civilian applications FreeBSD is more than secure enough.

So this isn’t to say that FreeBSD can’t be used as a firewall or secure server; it just doesn’t have as many mitigations as OpenBSD. OpenBSD, on the other hand, is typically slower than FreeBSD when it comes to issues that are affected by these mitigation measures.  How these actually affect practical real world security for you and I is up for debate however.

If you require access to a large number of third-party programs, FreeBSD’s ports and packages system contains more than four times the number of apps as OpenBSD’s.

Is OpenBSD better than FreeBSD?

No, OpenBSD is not better than FreeBSD. Some of its features are better than FreeBSD, such as simplicity and security. It’s better suited to some user’s needs, but one can’t say that it’s a better system. It’s important to understand what your organization needs to succeed in order to decide which one is better for you.

Does OpenBSD or FreeBSD Support Your Needs?

If you need a desktop system for everyday Internet browsing, email reading, and the occasional YouTube video, both systems offer plenty of window managers and desktop systems to choose from, and both will suffice. In this instance, it’s more a question of whether your hardware, such as your GPU, wifi (if you use it), and personal preferences in terms of package management and security updates, are adequately supported.

Key Differences

FreeBSD and OpenBSD are based on Unix versions from the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) family. FreeBSD was created with the goal of maximizing performance. OpenBSD, on the other hand, places a greater emphasis on security.

FreeBSD focuses on making system management and stability more user-friendly. It also emphasizes safety. OpenBSD, on the other hand, is focused on delivering a high level of security and simplicity, at a cost. Web content producers frequently favor FreeBSD, but security-conscious enterprises like banks and stock exchanges often prefer OpenBSD where it can be siloed into focused roles it does well.

Run a Test

The best thing to do is attempt to figure out what your daily demands are, then test both systems to see which one best meets them. If both appear to meet your needs equally well, evaluate your secondary concerns. If your primary requirement is a desktop system, and both systems meet your needs, you might want to consider how much security mitigation strategies benefit you on your desktop system, or how performance affects you if you read and save a lot of large files to disk. Perhaps some of the third-party apps you require are only available on one of the platforms, or perhaps the most recent version of that third-party application is only available on FreeBSD.

Despite the fact that OpenBSD and FreeBSD have a similar ancestor and are both excellent operating systems, there is a significant variation in how they manage configuration of the operating system and third-party packages. FreeBSD additionally has a number of kernel, filesystem, and network tuning options that aren’t available in OpenBSD.

Recapping the differences between FreeBSD and OpenBSD.

 

OpenBSD FreeBSD
Cost Free Free
Favored license ISC BSD
Performance Capable, better with TimedSQL insertions and a couple of other performance tests. Generally outclasses OpenBSD on most real-world performance metrics.  When ZFS is taken into account there is no contest.
Features Security and simplicity are prioritized over performance and compatibility. Flexible and highly organized system with an excellent file-storage system.
Security Security is of utmost importance and code is scrutinized every 6 months for vulnerabilities. Security is emphasized. Ensures that all packages are part of a centralized repository to avoid vulnerabilities.
Third-Party Applications Fewer applications than FreeBSD. 4x as many third-party applications in their ports and packages collection compared to OpenBSD.
Ease-of-Use Highly simplified system with excellent ease-of-use Highly organized system, so it’s easier to use than a hugely variable system, like those based on the Linux kernel. However, less simplified than OpenBSD.
Scalability Great for small to medium systems, or those with a priority on security and no other need. Highly scalable for systems of any size.
Usage Excellent for reliable, robust servers, and simple desktop environments. Excellent for servers, can be used for desktop environments but not common.Ports and packages collection includes numerous easily installed options.
Favorite of Banks and stock exchanges, and security-conscious institutions concerned about state-sponsored attacks. Content providers and large corporations, such as Netflix and Apple.

 

Wrapping Up: FreeBSD vs OpenBSD

In the end, both systems address many of the same problems, but they do it in different ways. So, the best approach is to figure out which system best suits your requirements and tastes by testing them both in the same environment. However, generally we’d recommend FreeBSD for highly-scalable systems and OpenBSD for smaller and/or security focused systems.

 

We hope that this article has helped to clarify the FreeBSD vs. OpenBSD debate for you. We’ve worked with open source systems for decades and can quickly get your team back on track with both of these BSD options. Please contact us today for support and we will respond as soon as possible.

 

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A-Team Systems is a proud supporter of the FreeBSD Foundation and many of our administrators are direct project contributors.

 

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