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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Mon, 05 Mar 2012

DragonFly BSD 3.0.1 desktop test -- first steps

I haven't distro-hopped in quite awhile. I lost my taste for it.

Once I started really using Linux and BSD to do my work, I needed a stable system that had all the applications I needed with all the data in the right places and formats. Everything needs to work. All the time.

That has generally meant, for me anyway, running Debian Stable. I've used Debian Squeeze on my main "production" laptop since late 2010.

About a year before that, I spent six months running OpenBSD 4.4 as my main OS when I couldn't figure out how to get the CD drive to work in an old laptop. OpenBSD was the only system I could install from a floppy disk. I learned a whole lot in those six months and was very productive.

Since then I've pretty much stuck with Linux. Almost exclusively with Debian.

I did some FreeBSD tests. I check in on OpenBSD via live images every once in a while. But I haven't actually installed anything other than Debian over the past year and an half.

Until now.


I've been intrigued by DragonFly BSD for some time. It's a fork of FreeBSD that's aimed at servers and features a filesystem called HAMMER that promises back-in-time file restore and massive scalability like Sun's ZFS, except with smaller memory requirements and a whole different way of doing things. DragonFly BSD, as I understand it, is aimed at facilitating distributed computing and filesystems.

So why try it on the desktop? None of the "primary" BSD projects (OpenBSD, FreeBSD, NetBSD, DragonFly BSD) are really desktop-focused. Hell, Linux isn't desktop-focused. It's all about servers and other appliance-type uses. The desktop, in many ways, is an afterthought.

But just as people -- including me -- use Linux on the desktop, some use BSD on the desktop as well.

They even appear to use DragonFly BSD on the desktop. Included in the online documentation are instructions on how to install Xorg and various desktop environments.

DragonFly uses the pkgsrc package system built for NetBSD. Looking at the packages available in that acceptably vast repository led me to believe I could give DragonFly BSD a try.

These days I'm doing a lot of video editing. Hence any system I use needs to have video-editing software. I'd love to be able to edit videos in Blender, as that runs on every BSD. But Blender's learning curve is very steep. Instead, I've been using the easier-to-learn OpenShot in Linux. It's not available on most BSDs, though there is a FreeBSD package, which I'm not sure works. I haven't read of anybody using it successfully.

But in the pkgsrc repositories for DragonFly BSD (and in Pkgsrc) I saw KDEnlive, the KDE-based video editor, which I've been meaning to try anyway.

So I get ISOs of DragonFly BSD, I install the system on my old IBM Thinkpad R32 (the test machine these days), I use the very-good DragonFly BSD documentation to set things up, and I start installing software.

I can say that the pkgin utility, with its apt-get-like ease, makes doing this more of a pleasure than not. But not everything in pkgsrc is available in binary package form. (Later I bookmarked the site from which DragonFly BSD draws its binary packages and used that as my guide for what I could and couldn't install without resorting to building from source in Ports.)

While I've installed Fvwm, Fluxbox, the Geany text editor, Firefox web browser and FileZilla FTP client (all working), along with the Gthumb image editor (not working ... yet), I was more a bit disappointed to find out that it looks like most of KDE -- including KDEnlive -- needs to be built in ports. That means with source.

(Later, as will be explained in my upcoming full DragonFly BSD 3.0.1 review, I had no success with KDE, GNOME and KDEnlive but was able to run the Xfce4 desktop environment.)

So here I am -- shades of FreeBSD upgrades gone bad and OpenBSD ports that wouldn't build and run -- building most of KDE from source. If this works, it'll be a miracle. It'll also probably take multiple days.

I've said it before: I don't like building applications from source. My personal experience with BSD ports, mostly in OpenBSD, has included a lot of fail. Much of that fail had to do with my trying to build OpenBSD ports on a Sparcstation 20, but it was fail nonetheless.

Once I figured out that the absence of a binary package in a given architecture in OpenBSD meant the port wouldn't build either, I made peace with the process (and with nobody saying what should be said).

I still don't like building applications from ports. I'm impatient, and I hate fail.

Coming up: I continue to work on the promised full review of DragonFly BSD 3.0.1. I've done at least a half-dozen installs, tried more than a few desktop environments and a couple-dozen applications, tried to get Flash working, configured audio and enjoyed a little HTML5 video. I'd like to do a server installation, but I'm not sure I have the time to sort that out.

I've always been intrigued by the BSD projects. Most are as old or older than GNU/Linux, they provide a compelling alternative on servers, in appliances and on desktops. Just as Linux frees us from the monoculture of Windows, BSD in its many forms gives us additional alternatives in the world of Unix-like operating systems.

Aside from its technical goals, what attracts me to DragonFly BSD is the community. It's small but appears to be helpful and friendly. That's extremely important for something I as a user when considering a system I'm considering adopting over the long term. From DragonFly BSD Digest author Justin Sherrill and project leader Matthew Dillon to those on the mailing lists, DragonFly BSD looks like a very nice project to be a part of.