iXsystems: No one is being ‘marooned’ by Debian focus

TrueNAS producer iXsystems has encountered some user turbulence concerning a shift from a FreeBSD focus to Debian Linux.

The two main products supplied by iXsystems, TrueNAS CORE and TrueNAS SCALE, are both open source. CORE is based on BSD Unix and is characterized as a scale-up product whereas the newer SCALE is based on Debian Linux, termed a scale-out product, and supports Docker Containers, Kubernetes, KVM, Gluster, and a wider range of hardware than CORE. It’s reckoned that the more mature CORE has better performance than SCALE and needs less CPU power and memory. 

From now on iXsystems will develop SCALE faster than CORE, with CORE becoming more of a maintenance product. Why shift the development center of gravity from BSD to Linux? It’s to do with software developments upstream of the base operating system.

Kris Moore, iXsystems
Kris Moore

Kris Moore, SVP for engineering, told us: “Upstream has shifted. So first of all, ZFS, that’s kind of the heart and soul of TrueNAS and was for FreeNAS as well. Most of that [development] work takes place on Linux these days; features testing, all that happens on Linux. FreeBSD is the thing you port to and you’re done. So that momentum has moved.”

“Again, drivers, features, all these things are natively developed on Linux first. These are day one, and then FreeBSD is if we feel like it or a community person ports something over.”

“We had a huge chunk of our engineering staff spending time improving FreeBSD as opposed to working on features and functionalities. What’s happened now with the transition to having a Debian basis, the people I used to have 90 percent of their time working on FreeBSD, they’re working on ZFS features now … That’s what I want to see; value add for everybody versus sitting around, implementing something Linux had a years ago. And trying to maintain or backport, or just deal with something that you just didn’t get out of box on FreeBSD.”

“It’s not knocking against FreeBSD. We love it. That’s our heritage. That’s our roots, I was on the CORE team elected twice. So believe me, if I felt like I could have stayed on FreeBSD for the next 20 years, I would have absolutely preferred to do that … But at some point, you gotta read the writing on the wall and say, well, all the the vendor supported-innovations are happening on the Linux side these days.”

Brett Davis, iXsystems
Brett Davis

Brett Davis, iXsystem EVP, added: ”Our heritage as a company is we actually spawned from BSD. It’s near and dear to our hearts, and has been for a long time. And we probably stuck to it longer than we should. We probably should have made the decision earlier.”

“If we had our druthers we probably would have stuck with with FreeBSD. But the reality of our focus is making a great product that people love, and not maintaining an operating system. That’s just the reality.”

BSD aficionados don’t like this change. Moore said: “Talk is cheap and complaints are free. You know, everyone loves to complain about it. But … if people wanted to push FreeBSD forward for the last 15 years, they would have.”

”It’s not like iX has gone to the dark side. We’re an open source company still. Guess what, Linux is open source. This is something I’ve had to argue with the BSD guys, like you’ve betrayed us. And I was, like, the source code is all still there. It’s all free. It’s all still available.”

Davis suggested: “There’s actually three camps of users. There’s the FreeBSD user. There’s a Linux user, and actually, there’s a larger group of users that don’t care. They just want a product that works. They want a NAS product. They don’t care what operating system is underneath it. I mean, do you care what operating system runs your microwave?”

“They just want to be able to install something. They want to make sure that they’re not frustrated by incompatibilities when drivers aren’t there for the hardware they’re trying to build. And most of these users aren’t giving us any money.”

It seems to us here at B&F that two parallel rivers of open source Unix development. BSD and Linux are changing in relative importance, with Linux taking priority in many developers’ minds over BSD. It’s not iXsystem’s responsibility to tell these Linux supporters that they are wrong. FreeBSD is unfortunately not so important anymore.

TrueNAS CORE releases are tied to BSD releases, and Davis admitted: “To be totally fair, we kind of scored an own goal by making a decision to change the name of the [next CORE] release from 13.1 to 13.3 … so that it could align with that version of FreeBSD.”

It’s been said that TrueNAS CORE VMs won’t migrate to SCALE. Moore said this “is just patently false, they migrate clean one to one.” It’s also been suggested that CORE is dead and has no future. Moore said: “We’re getting ready to release 13.3. The next update is coming out in the next few months, and we have to support it for years, no matter what.”

Davis added: “We have enterprise customers with entitlements dating out seven years. So we’ve got a lot of engineering ahead of us.”

Summing up, Davis said: “We want to make sure that the users are are taken care of, and whether or not they pay us, even though we are a business, making sure that we have a product that’s freely available in open source is important to us.”

“The other thing I think that’s sort of missed here is that no one’s marooned. You have the ability to migrate from CORE to SCALE at any point. No one’s forcing that at any point. If we’re going to maintain it for years, and you have a system that’s running fine, [then] just leave it, no problem.”