Home > Articles > Operating Systems, Server

NetBSD: Not Just for Toasters

NetBSD is the oldest and least-used of the three major BSD derivatives. David Chisnall takes a look at how it's survived for so long and where it's going in preparation for the next release.

Like this article? We recommend

Early this month (October 2006), the NetBSD project is due to release the next version of its OS. NetBSD is the oldest of the free BSD-derived operating systems still in active development, beginning life as a patch set for 386BSD. It is also the one with which I am least familiar, so I asked some of the developers to tell me what was so special about their system.

As with the rest of the BSD family, NetBSD is a complete operating system—kernel and userland—derived from the Berkeley Software Distribution version of UNIX. By the time it reached version 1.0, it already had support for six platforms, with more being added every release. The current total is 57, including 17 different CPU types.

Of Course, It Runs NetBSD

NetBSD has a well-deserved reputation for portability. Part of this reputation comes from the driver layer, which makes use of an abstraction layer known as the Modular Portability Layer (MPL). This layer enables a single driver to be easily used on all architectures by hiding details of exactly how the host talks to the hardware and dramatically reduces the amount of work needed to port it to a new architecture. It was a running joke for years that NetBSD was the OS to run on your toaster, and last year the team proved it by demonstrating a NetBSD-enabled toaster.

This portability was responsible for my first introduction to NetBSD. With version 7.0, RedHat dropped support for the SPARC32 architecture. While looking for an alternative to run on some old SparcStations that were being used as X terminals, I came across NetBSD. At the time, Linux’s handling of the SPARC32 MMU had some major issues (I don’t know if they have been fixed now), and NetBSD was noticeably faster. NetBSD has given a new lease on life to a lot of old hardware. Ports to systems such as old Apple 68K-based machines mean that it is often a very cheap way of getting a taste of UNIX.

Although the number of ports is impressive, the team is quick to point out that this does not necessarily correspond to portability. Geert Hendrickx explains:

You should understand that "portability" is not the same as "number of ports," though. Making an actual port still requires 1) manpower and 2) hardware, thus money, both of which NetBSD certainly has much less than (for example, Linux). And Linux ports are often quite "brute forced," involving a lot of code rewriting.

When NetBSD is ported to a new platform, this typically involves writing the code that sits at the bottom of the abstraction layer and writing drivers for any required hardware. In some cases, the drivers may already exist, but it is common for a new platform to have things such as keyboard controllers that are not present in existing systems, and so need adding. Hubert Feyer explained that the focus on portability is as important as ever:

With the ever-growing number of devices, not only in the traditional computer market but also more and more in the embedded area, portability is the key to NetBSD. Without proper infrastructure for writing portable code, like bus and DMA abstractions and a driver framework that sits on top of that, we could not deliver an operating system that runs on more than 50 hardware platforms and 14(?) CPU architectures—all from one source tree, including kernel, userland, and the X Window System.

This approach makes it a lot easier to maintain ports. When a new feature, such as the native threading support added in 2.0, is added higher up the abstraction stack, all the ports automatically gain it. This is in contrast with a system such as Linux, in which a number of ports are close to being forks and require a lot of pack-porting to bring up to feature-parity with the main branch. This portability, along with the permissive license, has attracted a number of hardware developers to NetBSD. It is found in a number of systems that the end user would not even think of as needing an operating system, such as Ricoh laser printers and photocopiers. When I asked why system developers would choose Linux over NetBSD, Hubert Feyer made this suggestion:

The primary reason why a lot of companies are choosing Linux over NetBSD, though, would be hype: Linux gets a lot more media attention; many people don’t even know that NetBSD exists. As a consequence, there is a lot more commercial software and support for Linux, and unfortunately this seems to form a closed loop. Fortunately, there are a number of companies that look beyond the latest hype and recognize the strengths of NetBSD: companies like Avocent, Sony, Brocade, Force 10, Wasabi Systems, NEC, Ricoh, and others.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020