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NetBSD is a free, fast, secure, and highly portable Unix-like Open Source operating system. It is available for many platforms, from 64-bit x86 servers and PC desktop systems to embedded ARM- and MIPS- based devices. Its clean design and advanced features make it excellent in both production and research environments, and it is user-supported with complete source. Many applications are easily available through pkgsrc, the NetBSD Packages Collection.
The first version of NetBSD (0.8) dates back to 1993 and springs from the 4.3BSD Lite operating system, a version of Unix developed at the University of California, Berkeley (BSD = Berkeley Software Distribution), and from the 386BSD system, the first BSD port to the Intel 386 CPU. In the following years, modifications from the 4.4BSD Lite release (the last release from the Berkeley group) were integrated into the system. The BSD branch of Unix has had a great importance and influence on the history of Unix-like operating systems, to which it has contributed many tools, ideas and improvements which are now standard: the vi editor, the C shell, job control, the Berkeley Fast File System, reliable signals, support for virtual memory and TCP/IP, just to name a few. This tradition of research and development survives today in the BSD systems and, in particular, in NetBSD.
NetBSD operates on a vast range of hardware platforms and is very portable. The full source to the NetBSD kernel and userland is available for all the supported platforms; please see the details on the official site of the NetBSD Project.
The basic features of NetBSD are:
Code quality and correctness
Portability to a wide range of hardware
Adherence to industry standards
Research and innovation
These characteristics also bring indirect advantages. For example, if you work on just one platform you could think that you're not interested in portability. But portability is tied to code quality; without a well-written and well-organized code base it would be impossible to support a large number of platforms. And code quality is the base of any good and solid software system, though surprisingly few people seem to understand it.
One of the key characteristics of NetBSD is that its developers are not satisfied with partial implementations. Some systems seem to have the philosophy of “If it works, it's right”. In that light, NetBSD's philosophy could be described as “It doesn't work unless it's right”. Think about how many overgrown programs are collapsing under their own weight and “features” and you'll understand why NetBSD tries to avoid this situation at all costs.
NetBSD supports many platforms, including the popular i386 and amd64, ARM, SPARC, Alpha, Amiga, Atari, and m68k- and PowerPC-based Apple Macintosh machines. Technical details for all of them can be found on the NetBSD site.
The NetBSD site states that: “The NetBSD Project provides a freely available and redistributable system that professionals, hobbyists, and researchers can use in whatever manner they wish”. It is also an ideal system if you want to learn Unix, mainly because of its adherence to standards (one of the project goals) and because it works equally well on the latest PC hardware as well as on hardware which is considered obsolete by many other operating systems. To learn and use Unix you don't need to buy expensive hardware; you can use that old PC or Mac in your attic. It is important to note that although NetBSD runs on old hardware, modern hardware is well supported and care has been taken to ensure that supporting old machines does not inhibit performance on modern hardware. In addition, if you need a Unix system which runs consistently on a variety of platforms, NetBSD is probably your best choice.
Aside from the standard Unix productivity tools, editors, formatters, C/C++ compilers and debuggers, and so on, that are included with the base system, there is a huge collection of packages (currently over 20,000) that can be installed as binary packages or built from pkgsrc, including popular cross-platform software such as Firefox, PostgreSQL, Python, and Xfce.