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Installing FreeBSD

I have an extra computer here, so I decided to install FreeBSD today. I've never used FreeBSD before. Never touched it. So to make this fun, I decided to try the install without reading any directions. What better way to tesout t an installer? It's also arguably a stupid way to install an OS, but stupid is fun sometimes.

So first I went to the FreeBSD website (which looks pretty spiffy, by the way) and went to "Get FreeBSD". At this point I admit I did glance around a bit to make sure I wasn't going to download a gigabyte of ISOs that I wouldn't be able to use. But it's pretty straightforward, so I got the latest version ISOs (2 of them) for i386. (I did also look for mirrors or a torrent download (just to be polite), but I couldn't find a link for those.)

A couple hours and two burned CDs later, I was ready to go. I booted from the CD and I was presented with something looking vaguely like Grub, but with way more options (Boot with APM? Boot into single-user mode?) Faced with a 10-second countdown which I apparently could not stop, I picked the default.

I was then presented with a nice ncurses menu. Again there were lots of options. The second was "Standard install" or something similar. There was also "Expert install" but given that I have no idea what I'm doing and that I'm not reading any directions, I went with standard.

There were a bunch more screens of text which I read through quickly. Then I got to disk partitioning, which is what I was expecting. So far so good. The disk partitioning system was different from fdisk; it was ncurses based. There was a nice key of commands at the bottom indicating which key to press for which function. Included was an option A which would auto-partition everything. I found this system extremely easy to use.

Partitions were called "Slices" for some reason beyond me. But making a new slice gave me options similar to fdisk. For example I could list a size in cylinders or in megabytes. And I had to give a number for the partition type. Here I met my first bit of confusion. It only listed 3 partition types in the on-screen text: DOS, Linux, or FreeBSD. Now, knowing that Linux can read MANY kinds of "DOS" partitions, from FAT16 to FAT32 to who knows what else, I was a bit stumped here. Would DOS work OK to install Windows XP someday?

Faced with this, I decided to install a very small Windows XP install first, then come back to FreeBSD later. So I started pounding Escape like a monkey until the installer exited.

Fast forward a half hour. Windows is installed. (I had the pleasure of waiting for that stupid blue circle thing to start babbling about giving me a tour, and then hard-cutting the power to my computer. All I wanted is a partition. I honestly hope I broke something.)

Back to the FreeBSD installer, back to partitioning. It now recognized the Windows partition I made; it called it a "DOS" partition, so I may have been OK making a "DOS" partition in the FreeBSD installer to begin with. Who knows.

The installer then asked me to install "FreeBSD partitions". I suppose these differ from "slices" in some way. Perhaps "FreeBSD partitions" are some kind of pseudo-partitions? I picked "A" which auto-allocated a bunch of mount points and partitons etc. Couldn't be easier.

FreeBSD offered to install a boot loader. There were three options. One was if I want to install a boot loader to the MBR so I could boot Windows. A second option said I should pick it if I only plan to use FreeBSD. A third option would install nothing. I picked the first option, but I found it strange that there was any difference between the first and second options. (I found out why this was so later.)

There were options somewhere along here to pick a type of software I wanted to install. Developer? Developer with X-windows? User? User with X-windows? I liked how it gave me the option of not installing X, because I don't want X. I liked the additional groups beyond "User" and "Developer". It also gave me the option to install individual packages if I wanted, which was also nice.

At this point files started copying from the CD. It probably took 10 minutes or less. Remembering how horribly long a Gentoo install is in comparison, I was quite pleased.

I did hit a snag at the network configuration menu. The installer did auto-recognize both of my network cards, which is pretty impressive, given that I sometimes have problems with that even in Linux. The installer then asked "Do you want to use IPV6" to which I said no. And then it said "Do you want to use DHCP" to which I said yes. After saying yes I realized I didn't want to use DHCP after all. I was taken to a screen where I could change the hostname/domainname etc., so I cancelled on this screen. However instead of taking me back to the network configuration menu, it went right on to the next step, something not related to networking at all. This was no fun. However I was later able to come back to the network screen after all the rest of the install questions were done. So no big deal. It also brought my network interface online right then and there, which was also very helpful. I could test whether the network was configured properly without even having to reboot.

The installer then started asking me a bunch of (I think) quite useful questions. "Do you want this machine to be an SSH server?" (The installer also offered to START the SSH server, without interrupting the install. Very helpful.) "Do you want to enable anonymous FTP login?" Etc. etc. The questions were all in plain English, and quite easy to answer yes/no quickly.

The installer did fail miserably when I tried to install exim; it made me swap CDs twice and then claimed it couldn't find the installer. However that was one of the few snags I ran into.

Fast forward to the end. I rebooted from the hard drive and I was faced with a VERY plain prompt, compared to even the barest version of GRUB. Something like "1 DOS" and "2 FreeBSD". I picked DOS, and Windows booted OK. Nice how that worked without my ever having to touch a configuration file. I rebooted again into FreeBSD. After the first boot prompt, I got another which was identical to what I'd seen on the CD. So apparently FreeBSD has a pseudo boot-loader of some sort. Very interesting.

At this point it's up and running, without ever having read any directions. The whole install took maybe an hour (not counting installing Windows). I was VERY impressed with how nice and easy the installer was to use. I think ncurses is the PERFECT balance between a command line and graphical install. X is just too big and buggy to rely upon for something as important as installing an OS. But ncurses seems like it works anywhere a console window works (for the most part). I think the Gentoo GUI installer might've benefitted from taking this route or something similar.

I'm looking forward to learning ports and seeing how it differs from Portage. I wonder if I'll need to read the directions for that.

September 22, 2006 @ 4:40 PM PDT
Cateogory: Hardware


Quoth Kim on September 22, 2006 @ 5:51 PM PDT

I have a few friends who after being long-time users (me included) of Slackware can't stop bashing me for going to Gentoo instead of FreeBSD. I feel Gentoo development is much faster than FBSD, but I also experience that whenever things are included in FBSD Ports they "simply work". One small difference between their systems and mine are that they run theirs as servers and mine is my only desktop system. Basically, I need more crap installed than they do, which in tunr might make my install more crash prone, though Gentoo rarely ever crashes. The crashes I've had have been with Firefox locking up X in suh a manner that a hard reboot was the only way out.

Good luck with FBSD. If I ever change OS again that's what I'll choose.

Quoth Brian on September 22, 2006 @ 6:01 PM PDT

Thanks. I think on a desktop machine bleeding-edge is usually the way to go. Things change too quickly. (There's a new version of Gnome released every 6 months, right?) Gentoo and other fast-moving distros are perfect for a desktop machine for that reason.

I'm in favor of keeping server and desktop on different physical machines. That way I can abuse the heck out of my desktop machine and it doesn't matter. I'd probably never use FreeBSD for a desktop machine though.

Quoth Kim on September 22, 2006 @ 7:03 PM PDT

I only run glftpd on my desktop. My website is on one of the friends' FBSD and my email is on another friend's newly-installed Hardened-Gentoo system. So there's no "cow on the ice" if this system goes down.