The Fun with 386BSD

Lynne's first step into the business of operating system open source was with the official CDROM release of 386BSD, and how the project rolled out with the publisher.. In her own words:

[ Jolitz Heritage ]

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386BSD Mania

Lynne Jolitz speaks - "386BSD Mania were the two crazy years (1992-1994) after the first complete releases hit the Internet. Dr. Dobbs Journal paved the way for this frenzy by publishing the monthly "Porting Unix to the 386" series starting in January 1991, and it established a serious following.

When 386BSD Release 0.0 went out the door, only a thousand or so downloads was expected. Boy, were we wrong. The original download site got overloaded and mirror sites were set up all over the globe. Downloads were reported from every continent except Antartica. Hunger for 386BSD fed by the Dr. Dobbs Journal article series led to an estimated 250,000 downloads from the Internet in the first week.

How people got 386BSD

In the 1980's I had handled licensing and operations for Unix at Symmetric Computer Systems, so I was very familiar with proprietary source issuance and maintenance. But in those days, Unix was installed and tested on our Symmetric 375 workstations (NS32000 based). We did supply a floppy or tape backup, but when the customer got the machine all she had to do was turn it on - tedious installations were definitely a thing of the past in the past!

But with 386BSD it was a different world. 386/486 PCs were purchased separately by the customer, who then installed 386BSD on the drive. If you had Internet connectivity, you had no problem - the release was available for download. But what if you didn't have that connectivity? Remember - in 1992 Internet connectivity was still uncommon outside of universities, government, and corporations.

Installing the first release of 386BSD wasn't easy, and you needed over 30 floppies, so "386BSD install parties" were set up - informal get-togethers to load 386BSD on your PC. Groups like the Silicon Valley Unix User Group would run installations in the back of the room during meetings. 386BSD Release 0.1, unlike the earlier version, came with easy automated setup and installation from Internet, CDROM, and floppy, so anyone could install it without having to be an expert. When this was released, the install parties phenomenon faded away.

386BSD fan FAQs, instructions, and bugfixes were quickly distributed via the Internet, along with software (some questionable, some proprietary, some really great). Since floppies were cumbersome, FTP Software decided to "give away" CDROMs of 386BSD at conferences. Other companies like InfoMagic sold the release on CDROM.

These unofficial CDROM releases were just bundled up 386BSD releases and updates the Jolitz team made on the Internet, and not commercial quality releases like those the Jolitz team did for Symmetric Computer Systems years earlier. There was no additional testing or quality control, and they worked or not.

386BSD Release 1.0 CDROM

As the size of the release grew over the next two years from the basic kernel, tools, and utilities to a plethora of applications and new work, demand grew for a comprehensive CDROM which coordinated all this work - Internet releases were just too chaotic, and at this time no good source code control mechanism existed for Internet submissions. Hosting and connectivity was still expensive, and the typical Internet user was still running on a 56kbps modem. Something had to be done.

In 1994, after an international advertising campaign resulted in a huge number of preorders, 386BSD Release 1.0 from Dr. Dobbs Journal was released. A completely new kernel design and implementation, coupled with 600 MBytes of Berkeley Unix applications and utilities, completely filled the CDROM. Along with the new and improved automated installation mechanism and partitioning functions for "drive-sharing" multiple OSs (Windows, DOS, Unix) for the Unix savant, a Windows-friendly "read-only" CDROM mechanism to get "acquainted" with Berkeley Unix and 386BSD was also provided to Unix novices, so that they could view source code and experience a Unix system running on the CDROM itself. Unix in the DOS / Windows world was then considered exotic and dangerous terrain - the province of experts and gurus. The 386BSD CDROM "sampler" safely provided the bridge to a Unix world for those enthusiasts.

386BSD was dedicated to exploration of OS knowledge. While it challenged old-styled Unix precepts and assumptions, 386BSD encouraged new students into the fold. Perhaps this is the primary source of hostility from some of the Unix old-guard - their loss of prestige and control. If so, you won't hear us feeling sorry for it.

After the CDROM was Released

After the CDROM release in 1994, Bill and Lynne began work on a book series on 386BSD operating systems design. The first volume in the "Source Code Secrets" series "The Basic Kernel" from Peer-to-Peer LLC was released in 1996 to good reviews. Over the years, The Basic Kernel Source Code Secrets has been used by a wide array of architects and researchers to understand operating systems fundamentals of why something is designed a certain way.

386BSD Release 1.0 and subsequent versions were advertised and sold internationally for three years. This exclusive arrangement with Miller-Freeman Publications (now CMP) ended in 1999, five years after the CDROM was first introduced.

All rights regarding 386BSD are now held exclusively by Jolitz and Jolitz."

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  • Started open source UNIX.

    Appeared in part as a 17 article magazine series in 1991-1992.

    Documented the "how, what, why, who, when" of porting BSD to the 386.

    Done while BSD was becoming "open source".

    Started open source UNIX.

    Appeared in part as a 17 article magazine series in 1991-1992.

    Documented the "how, what, why, who, when" of porting BSD to the 386.

    Done while BSD was becoming "open source".


    This, the first article, is the first published mention of 386BSD. By this time, the project had been operational for 18 months, and William Jolitz was at Berkeley working on the Net/2 release.
    In this installment, we discussed the beginning of our project and the initial framework that guided our efforts, in particular, the development of the 386BSD specification.


    The second article in the "PORTING UNIX TO THE 386" series discussed the utilities we had to build to test the port on an actual 80386 PC.
    By far, the most popular article.


    This article, last of the original three done altogether in 1990, on getting the critical pieces functioning independantly that we needed to do the port. Once these we obtained, the kernel was inevitable.


    We describe the need and use of a cross-support environment to create 386 code from a non-386 machine, so as to create the initial binarys before our port can generate them.


    We describe the origin and orientation of the "Free Software" vs. "Open Software" efforts via respective licenses.


    We build the first instance of the root filesystem - before any operational system is present on the 386 to build one. Part of the bootstrapping cycle of getting up the first running system on a new architecture.

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