28 July 2015

Hands-on Review: Xinuos OpenServer X

If the title baffled you a bit, then you're not alone.  Here's the backstory:

  • A company called UnXis was founded in 2009 to sell (you guessed it!) UNIX operating system software.
  • UnXis was built on the assets of the now long-defunct and bankrupt SCO Group, including the variously XENIX- or SystemV-based UnixWare and OpenServer products, but appears to have since severed all ties with the SCO Group, and also made a very public and pointed disavowal of patent trolling.  Smart move, methinks.
  • In 2013, UnXis dropped that awful camel-case name in favor of the much more straightforward Xinuos.  It took me a few minutes to figure out that the company has nothing to do with Xinu, a fact which left me slightly bitter.
Are you still with me?  Good.  Because it's about to get even more bizarre.

Xinuos OpenServer X has absolutely no connection "under the hood," other than in the most ancient and pedagogical senses, to the older UnixWare or SCO OpenServer lineages: those were, as mentioned previously, derived from XENIX or System V UNIX, whereas OpenServer X is based directly off of FreeBSD.

Furthermore, I couldn't help but note my own tendency to abbreviate the operating system's name, in my own mind, as "OS X."  I wonder how a certain fruity company feels about that, if indeed said company is even aware...

Now, let's move on to the system itself.  I'm going to be very candid here: it is, arguably, stock FreeBSD with a bit of "shellac."  Xinuos has simply replaced the FreeBSD name and brandmarks in various places with OpenServer; replaced the Beastie with a large two-tone "X," and added a few binary packages and some GUI sugar by default.  The installation DVD and USB images first launch into a bootloader virtually identical to that of "stock" FreeBSD, presents one with similar options (adding, notably, the option of whether or not to boot into a GUI), then proceeds to jump into the FreeBSD kernel.

The usual FreeBSD kernel messages whiz by your screen.  You get a warning if you have less than 8GB of RAM installed (8GB?  Really?) and are then dropped, if you allowed the default boot to proceed, into an XFCE4 desktop environment.

The desktop environment is very well-themed, I'll admit.  Everything melds together nicely, and it certainly looks quite professional.  There's an icon for administration tools (I'll come back to that in a minute) and another for an installer, in addition to the usual file browsers and help documents.

The installer is an odd creature.  It mixes, in a rather haphazard fashion, the text and buttons almost verbatim from the default console-based FreeBSD installer in GTK+ windows, with the occasional escrow of the process out to a terminal window.  My guess is that it's running the FreeBSD installer in the background, bringing some of the simpler dialogs into GTK+ views, and just showing the otherwise-hidden installer for more complex interaction.  The installer proceeds, gives you the usual partitioning, service configuration, networking, and user setup options, and then offers to reboot for you.  How thoughtful!

If you're not impressed so far, there is one redeeming bit coming up.

Post installation, the system boots by default into the SLiM login manager (again with a custom theme, of course), then launches XFCE4 again.  At your new desktop, still well-themed, you have the same icons as the installation desktop, minus the installer itself of course.

At this point, I decided to try my hand at the administrative console, and I was in for my first pleasant surprise of this entire experience.  The web-based admin console is an absolute delight: it's well-organized, completely functional, and comprehensive.  My immediate reaction, of course, was "who else's work is this?"  My skepticism proved not to be unfounded, as poking through the nginx configuration files and the web root shows that the web UI is the FreeNAS web UI with some custom branding.

So, what's my overall impression of this "new operating system?"  It makes an excellent, well-rounded, intuitive FreeBSD distro.  The OpenServer X team has put considerable effort into neatly integrating and streamlining various other tools.  Having said that, it still has some rough edges (particularly the installer jumping between GTK+ dialogs and a terminal), and I also take umbrage to Xinuos branding it as a custom-built operating system when a far more honest appraisal would be a FreeBSD "convenience" distribution.

I'd recommend this for anybody who A) wants a FreeBSD server without a lot of the headache traditionally involved in setting one up, and/or B) feels that PC-BSD is a bit bloated.  I do not feel that Xinuos should charge for the product itself, which they are wisely not doing at the moment.  They could, however, quite justly follow the standard community-driven model and charge for support, and I'll call them a decent FOSS contributor and move on with my day.