April 28, 2018

Finishing up a FreeBSD experiment

I've been using FreeBSD as my daily driver at work since December. I've successfully done my job and I've learned a hell of a lot forcing myself on CURRENT... But there's been a number of issues with it that have made it difficult to keep using, so I replaced it with Arch Linux yesterday and I no longer have those issues. This is not the first time I've forced myself to run FreeBSD and it won't be the last.

The FreeBSD setup

I have a Dell Developer Edition. It employs full-disk encryption with ZFS. Not being a "disk-jockey" I cannot comment on how exhilarating an experience running ZFS is. It didn't cause me any trouble.

It has an Intel graphics card and the display server is X. I use the StumpWM window manager and the SLiM login manager. xscreensaver handles locking the screen, feh gives me background images, scrot gives me screenshots, and recordMyDesktop gives me video screen capture. This list should feel familiar to users of Arch Linux or other X-supported, bring-your-own-software operating systems/Linux distributions.

Software development

I primarily work on a web application with Node/PostgreSQL and React/SASS. I do all of this development locally on FreeBSD. I run other components of our system in a Vagrant-managed VirtualBox virtual machine.

Upgrading the system

Since I'm running CURRENT, I fetch the latest commit on Subversion and rebuild the FreeBSD system (kernel + user-land) each weekend to get the new hotness. This takes somewhere between 1-4 hours. I start the process Sunday morning and come back to it after lunch. After the system is compiled and installed, I update all the packages through the package manager and deal with fallout from incompatible kernel modules that send me in a crash/reboot loop on boot.

This is actually the part about running FreeBSD (CURRENT) I love the most. I've gotten more familiar with the development and distribution of kernel modules like the WiFi, Graphics, and VirtualBox drivers. I've learned a lot about the organization of the FreeBSD source code. And I've gotten some improvements merged into the FreeBSD Handbook on how to debug a core dump.

Issues with FreeBSD on my hardware

I installed CURRENT in December to get support for new Intel graphics drivers (which have since been backported to STABLE). The built-in Intel WiFi card is also new enough that it hadn't been backported to STABLE. My WiFi ultimately never got more than 2-4Mbps down on the same networks my Macbook Pro would get 120-250Mbps down. I even bought an older Realtek USB WiFi adapter and it fared no differently. My understanding is that this is because CURRENT turns on enough debug flags that the entire system is not really meant to be used except for by FreeBSD developers.

It would often end up taking 10-30 seconds for a git push to happen. It would take minutes to pull new Docker images, etc. This (like everything else) does not mean you cannot do work on FreeBSD CURRENT, it makes it really annoying.

Appendix A - Headphones

I couldn't figure out the headphone jack at all. Configuring outputs via sysctl and device.hints is either really complicated or presented in documentation really complicatedly. I posted a few times in #freebsd on Freenode and got eager assistance but ultimately couldn't get the headphone jack to produce anything without incredible distortion.

Of course Spotify has no FreeBSD client and I didn't want to try the Linux compatiblity layer (which may have worked). I tried spoofing user agents for the Spotify web app in Chrome but couldn't find one that worked. (I still cannot get a working one on Linux either.) So I'd end up listening to Spotify on my phone, which would have been acceptable except for that the studio headphones I decided I needed were immensely under-powered by my phone.

Appendix B - Yubikey

I couldn't figure out how to give myself non-root access to my Yubikey which I believe is the reason I ultimately wasn't able to make any use of it. Though admittedly I don't understand a whit of GPG/PGP or Yubikey itself.

Appendix C - bhyve

I really wanted to use bhyve as the hypervisor for my CentOS virtual machines instead of VirtualBox. So I spent 2-3 weekends trying to get it working as a backend for Vagrant. Unfortunately the best "supported" way of doing this is to manually mutate VirtualBox-based Vagrant boxes and that just repeatedly didn't work for me.

When I tried using bhyve directly I couldn't get networking right. Presumably this is because NAT doesn't work well with wireless interfaces... And I hadn't put in enough weekends to understand setting up proxy rules correctly.

Appendix D - Synaptics

It is my understanding that FreeBSD has its own custom Synaptics drivers and configuration interfaces. Whether that is the case or not, the documentation is a nightmare and while I would have loved to punt to a graphical interface to prevent from fat-palming the touchpad every 30 seconds, none of the graphical configuration tools seemed to work.

A few weeks ago I think I finally got the synaptics support on but I couldn't scroll or select text anymore. I also had to disable synaptics, restart X, enable synaptics, and restart X on each boot for it to successfully register the mouse. I meant to post in #freebsd on Freenode where I probably would have found a solution but :shrugs:.

Appendix E - Sleep

Well sleep doesn't really work on any modern operating system.

FreeBSD is awesome

I enjoy picking on my setup, but it should be impressive that you can do real-world work on FreeBSD. If I had a 3-4 year old laptop instead of a 1-2 year old laptop, most of my issues would be solved.

Here are some reasons to like FreeBSD.

Less competition

This is kind of stupid. But it's easier to find work to do (e.g. docs to fix, bugs to report, ports to add/update, drivers to test) on FreeBSD. I'm really disappointed to be back on Linux because I like being closer to the community and knowing there are ways I can contribute and learn. It's difficult to find the right combination of fending/learning for yourself and achieving a certain level of productivity.

Package management (culture)

Rolling packages are really important to me as a developer. When I've run Ubuntu and Debian desktops in the past, I typically built 5-15 major (to my workflow) components from source myself. This is annoying. Rolling package systems are both easier to use and easier to contribute to... The latter point may be a coincidence.

In FreeBSD, packages are rolling and the base system (kernel + userland) is released every year or two if you run the recommended/supported "flavors" of FreeBSD (i.e. not CURRENT). If you're running CURRENT then everything is rolling.

Packages are binary, but you can build them from source if needed.


FreeBSD has an older code base than Linux does but still manages to be much better organized. OpenBSD and Minix are even better organized but I don't consider them in the grouping as mainstream general-purpose operating systems like FreeBSD and Linux. Linux is an awful mess and is very intimidating, though I hope to get over that.

Old-school interfaces

There's no systemd so starting X is as simple as startx (but you can enable the login manager service to have it launch on boot). You configure your network interfaces via ifconfig, wpa_supplicant, and dhclient.


PCBSD or TrueOS may be a good option for desktop users but something about the project turns me off (maybe it's the scroll-jacking website).

Picking Arch Linux

In any case, I decided it was time to stop waiting for git push to finish. I had run Gentoo at work for 3-4 months before I installed FreeBSD. But I still had nightmares of resolving dependencies during upgrades. I needed a binary package manager (not hard to find) and a rolling release system.

Installing Arch stinks

Many of my old coworkers at Linode run Arch Linux at home so I've looked into it a few times. It absolutely meets my rolling release and binary packaging needs. But I've been through the installation once before (and I've been through Gentoo's) and loathed the minutes-long effort required to set up full-disk encryption. Also, systemd? :(

How about Void Linux?

Void Linux looked promising and avoids systemd (which legitimately adds complexity and new tools to learn for desktop users with graphics and WiFi/DHCP networking). It has a rolling release system and binary packages, but overall didn't seem popular enough. I worried I'd be in the same boat as in Debian/Ubuntu building lots of packages myself.

What about Arch-based distros?

Eventually I realized Antergos and Manjaro are two (Distrowatch-rated) popular distributions that are based on Arch and would provide me with the installer I really wanted. I read more about Manjaro and found it was pretty divergent from Arch. That didn't sound appealing. Divergent distributions like Manjaro and Mint exist to cause trouble. Antergos, on the other hand, seemed to be a thin layer around Arch including a graphical installer and its own few package repositories. It seemed easy enough to remove after the installation was finished.

Antergos Linux

I ran the Antergos installer and the first time around, my touchpad didn't work at all. I tried a USB mouse (that to be honest, may have been broken anyway) but it didn't seem to be recognized. I rebooted and my touchpad worked.

I tried to configure WiFi using the graphical NetworkManager provided but it was super buggy. Menus kept expanding and contracting as I moused over items. And it ultimately never prompted me for a password to the locked networks around me. (It showed lock icons beside the locked networks.)

I spent half an hour trying to configure the WiFi manually. After I got it working (and "learned" all the fun new modern tools like ip, iw, dhcpcd, iwconfig, and systemd networking), the Antergos installer would crash at the last step for some error related to not being able to update itself.

At this point I gave up. The Antergos installer was half-baked, buggy, and was getting me nowhere.

Anarchy Linux

Still loathe to spend a few minutes configuring disk encryption manually, I interneted until I found Anarchy Linux (which used to be Arch Anywhere).

This installer seemed even more promising. It is a TUI installer so no need for a mouse and there are more desktop environments to pick from (including i3 and Sway) or avoid.

It was a little concerning that Anarchy Linux also intends to be its own divergent Arch-based distribution, but in the meantime it still offers support for installing vanilla Arch.

It worked.

Life on Arch

I copied over all my configs from my FreeBSD setup and they all worked. That's pretty nice (also speaks to the general compatibility of software between Linux and FreeBSD). StumpWM, SLiM, scrot, xscreensaver, feh, Emacs, Tmux, ssh, kubectl, font settings, keyboarding bindings, etc.

Getting Powerline working was a little weird. The powerline and powerline-fonts packages don't seem to install patched fonts (e.g. Noto Sans for Powerline). I prefer to use these than the alternative of specifying multiple fonts for fallbacks because I have font settings in multiple places (e.g. .Xresources, .emacs, etc) and the syntax varies in each config. So ultimately I cloned the github.com/powerline/fonts repo and ran the install.sh script there to get the patched fonts.

But hey, there's a Spotify client! It works! And the headphone jack just works after installing alsa-utils and running alsamixer. And my WiFi speed is 120Mbps-250Mbps down on all the right networks!

I can live with this.

Random background

Each time I join a new company, I try to use the change as an excuse to force myself to try different workflows and learn something new tangential to the work I actually do. I'd been a Vim and Ubuntu desktop user since highschool. In 2015, I took a break from work on the East Coast to live in a school bus in Silver City, New Mexico. I swapped out my Ubuntu and Vim dev setup for FreeBSD and Emacs. I kept GNOME 3 because I liked the asthetic. I spent 6 months with this setup forcing myself to use it as my daily-driver doing full-stack, contract web development gigs.

In 2016, I joined Linode and took up the company Macbook Pro. I wasn't as comfortable at the time running Linux on my Macbook, but a determined coworker put Arch on his. I was still the only one running Emacs (everyone else used Vim or VS Code) for Python and React development.

I joined Capsule8 in late 2017 and put Gentoo on my Dell Developer Edition. Most people ran Ubuntu on the Dell or macOS. I'd never used Gentoo on a desktop before but liked the systemd-optional design and similarities to FreeBSD. I ran Gentoo for 3-4 months but was constantly breaking it during upgrades, and the monthly, full-system upgrades themselves took 1-2 days. I didn't have the chops or patience to deal with it.

So I used FreeBSD for 5 months and now I'm back on Linux.