FreeBSD vs GNU/Linux: What’s the difference

Every person in the tech industry or those that have spent some time tinkering with computers has heard of GNU/Linux. When it comes to FreeBSD, far less people are aware of its existence and not a lot of users (or even system administrators) understand the difference between the two operating systems. The most likely scenario of how you wound up here is that you have used Linux for a while, and are now wondering if FreeBSD is better or if it is a good idea to switch.

In this article, we will shed some light on FreeBSD vs GNU/Linux, as we compare the operating systems across a few key areas to help you understand the differences between them. You will find that the two systems have a lot in common, but also substantial differences once you get past the superficial similarities. Join us below as we go into the details of these two operating systems, ultimately helping you choose which one would be better for your needs.

In this tutorial you will learn:

  • FreeBSD vs GNU/Linux: What are the differences?
FreeBSD vs GNU/Linux: What's the difference
FreeBSD vs GNU/Linux: What’s the difference
Software Requirements and Linux Command Line Conventions
Category Requirements, Conventions or Software Version Used
System GNU/Linux and FreeBSD
Software N/A
Other Privileged access to your Linux system as root or via the sudo command.
Conventions # – requires given linux commands to be executed with root privileges either directly as a root user or by use of sudo command
$ – requires given linux commands to be executed as a regular non-privileged user

Fundamental Differences

When people say “Linux,” what are they actually referring to? Linux is not technically an operating system itself, but a kernel that serves as the foundation for a fully packaged operating system. GNU makes its way onto most distributions, which is a collection of free software. Some refer to this combination as GNU/Linux or LiGNUx, but it has become more common (and erroneous) to simply say Linux, with the understanding that GNU software is pretty much implied.

Contrast this to FreeBSD, which is not only a system kernel, but all the user land tools as well. This makes for a more coherent development model and can result in a more robust operating system.

Why does this matter?

Because it means that FreeBSD developers do not just develop the kernel and call it a day. They also see to the integration of all the utilities that a user will need to use. This makes for a more cohesive environment. FreeBSD contains very little software developed by GNU, and instead uses versions that have been written to mimic the original Unix behavior.

Linux, on the other hand, is just a kernel. With GNU applications on top of it, we get GNU/Linux. Furthermore, each publisher puts their own spin on the operating system and releases them as a “distribution.” The end result is undeniably less cohesive than that of FreeBSD’s development model, but still makes for a great operating system at the end of the day.

Hardware Support

Not much competition here. Linux took off in the 90s while BSD variants were encumbered by licensing issues. Since Linux gained wider acceptance early on, the effects have rippled into our present time. Suffice it to say that GNU/Linux enjoys much more widespread hardware support than FreeBSD. FreeBSD can still run on nearly all modern hardware, but gets into some trouble with legacy support.


The licensing philisophies of these two operating systems is something of a hot button issue, and can often be the deciding factor for prospective users of either system. Both operating systems are open source, but there are some differences in how users and developers are allowed to utilize that source code.

FreeBSD uses the BSD license, which is a very permissive license that allows anyone to modify and redistribute the code, even more commercial purposes (did Apple come to mind for anyone?).

The GNU license also allows users to modify and redistribute code, but the key difference is that they are not allowed to commercialize these tools.

For the end user, this may not make any difference. You could use either system for years while being blissfully unaware of the licensing rules. To developers, however, this can make a huge difference. On FreeBSD, developers have a bit more freedom with what they can do with the code.

Which One Is Better?

The operating system that you should use is going to depend on your individual needs and perspective. GNU/Linux is usually the superior choice for desktop users, as it enjoys wider hardware and software support. FreeBSD’s approach to updates is much more careful and curated, and this is a great thing for servers. For desktops, not so much. For servers, FreeBSD can be a better choice if you want a very predictable and coherent operating system. However, certain GNU/Linux can provide equal stability and while also retaining access to some of the newest features.