Take a closer look at OpenBSD 4.3

Shift your focus to superior security

OpenBSD provides a UNIX® distribution with a primary emphasis on security and cryptography. If you're looking for a UNIX distribution to deploy in the most critical nexus in your network infrastructure, look no further than OpenBSD. The recent release of OpenBSD—version 4.3—includes several new features and bug fixes that this article reviews.


John Fronckowiak, President, IDC Consulting Inc.

John FronckowiakJohn Fronckowiak is president and founder of IDC Consulting Inc. and also a Clinical Assistant Professor in Information Systems at Medaille College, at the School of Adult and Graduate Education. He is the author of several books and articles about Web application development, programming, database design and development, and networking. You can reach John at john@idcc.net.

12 August 2008

Also available in Chinese

Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) is one of the oldest and continues to be one of the most common flavors of UNIX available. There are three major flavors of BSD UNIX: FreeBSD, which focuses on performance and the Intel processor architecture; NetBSD, which focuses on portability and clean design; and OpenBSD, which focuses on portability, security, and integrated cryptography.

OpenBSD’s motto—"free, functional, and secure"—says it all. In its default configuration, OpenBSD has proven one of the most secure operating systems available. Its recent version 4.3 release continues in that tradition.

The OpenBSD audit process

OpenBSD offers a high level of out-of-the-box security. In fact, only two security vulnerabilities have been identified in the default installation over the past 10 years. Although there may be some debate on this topic because of what is enabled in the default OpenBSD installation, it's clear that OpenBSD places a high degree of focus on enabling security.

Much of the security consistency is the result of the audit process found in its distributions. A team of experienced developers focused on auditing each piece of code entered into the source tree. Codes are analyzed for security flaws as well as bugs in general—bugs that might not affect general functionality but could be exploited as security flaws down the line. Every bug is taken seriously and immediately addressed. This proactive approach has kept OpenBSD from being susceptible to unknown exploits, which other distributions have to scramble to cover upon discovery.

OpenBSD: Where and when

Although OpenBSD may not see the same mass distribution as other UNIX flavors, because of its secure nature and focus on cryptography, it is generally found at the most crucial points of highly secure networks. In fact, many financial institutions responsible for corporate networks and customer record keeping place a high degree of confidence in their OpenBSD deployments.

Because of OpenBSD's relation to other BSD UNIX distributions, it is available on a wide variety of hardware platforms, including:

  • alpha: Digital Alpha-based systems
  • amd64: AMD64-based systems
  • armish: Various ARM-based appliances
  • hp300: Hewlett-Packard HP 9000 series 300 and 400 workstations
  • hppa: Hewlett-Packard Precision Architecture (PA-RISC) systems
  • i386: Standard computers based on the Intel® i386 architecture and compatible processors
  • landisk: IO-DATA USL-5P, using a Hitachi/Renesas SH-4 CPU
  • luna88k: Omron LUNA-88K and LUNA-88K2 workstations
  • mac68k: Motorola 680x0-based Apple Macintosh with MMU
  • macppc: Apple PowerPC-based machines, from the Apple iMac on
  • mvme68k: Motorola 680x0-based VME systems
  • mvme88k: Motorola 881x0-based VME systems
  • sgi: SGI MIPS-based workstations
  • sparc: Sun sun4-, sun4c-, and sun4m-class SPARC systems
  • sparc64: Sun UltraSPARC systems
  • vax: Digital VAX-based systems
  • zaurus: Sharp Zaurus C3x00 Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs)

OpenBSD core packages and features

Now that you've determined whether OpenBSD is an option for your hardware platform, let's take a closer look at some OpenBSD highlights.


The first package of note is OpenSSH, with which every UNIX and Linux® user is familiar. However, many people might not know that it comes from OpenBSD developers. OpenSSH was originally developed for OpenBSD and has since become the standard Secure Shell (SSH) package, ported for just about every version of the UNIX, Linux, and Microsoft® Windows® operating systems. OpenSSH includes ssh for secure logins, scp for secure copies, and sftp—a secure alternative to File Transfer Protocol (FTP). All source code falls into the open source BSD license, following OpenBSD's directive to keep all proprietary code and restrictive licensing schemes out of the distribution (which was the initial impetus to create a new version of SSH). Every piece of software included in OpenBSD is completely free, with no restrictions on use.


Because the OpenBSD project is based in Canada, no United States export restrictions on cryptography apply, allowing the distribution to make full use of modern algorithms for encryption. Encryption can be found almost everywhere in the operating system, from file transfers to file systems to networking. Pseudo-random number generators are also included in OpenBSD, which ensures that random numbers cannot be predicted based on the system state. Other features include cryptographic hash functions, cryptographic transform libraries, and cryptographic hardware support.

Another heavily exported piece of OpenBSD is the IP Security Protocol (IPSec), which the operating system uses rather than relying on the inherently insecure TCP/IP version 4 (IPv4). (IPV4 chooses to trust just about everybody and everything.) IPSec encrypts and validates packets to protect the privacy of data and to ensure that no changes are made to packets during the delivery process. IPSec became an integral piece of the standard Internet Protocol with the introduction of TCP/IP version 6 (IPv6), making the future of the Internet more secure by default.

OpenBSD as firewall

Because OpenBSD is both thin and secure, one of the most common OpenBSD implementation purposes is as a firewall. Firewalls operate at the ground level of most secure locations, and OpenBSD's implementation of packet filtering is top notch. Packet Filter (PF)—an open source solution designed by the OpenBSD development community—is the OpenBSD method of choice. Like many other pieces of OpenBSD software, its success has prompted the other BSD variants to port it into their own distributions.

OpenBSD is set up to be secure by default, so there aren't too many services that you must turn off to set up a rock-solid firewall. You will have to enable a second Ethernet interface and configure PF to your needs. See Resources for links to articles on how to set up an OpenBSD server as a firewall.

OpenBSD 4.3: What's new

OpenBSD version 4.3 introduces several new features and improvements. The most important of these include:

  • A fix for a buffer overflow problem in dhcpd(8). Shortly after OpenBSD version 4.2 was released, an error was discovered with carefully crafted Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) requests resulting in a buffer-overflow condition, making dhcpd(8) much more robust.
  • hoststated(8) and hoststatectl(8) were renamed to relayd(8) and relayctl(8), respectively. relayd(8) is a fully featured TCP/IP relay, or Application Layer Gateway (ALG), in which the health checking of hosts is just a part of the functionality. It currently supports TCP, Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), and Domain Name System (DNS) relaying; Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) "acceleration," or termination; and the traditional layer 3 redirections. relayd(8) is now also able to send Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) traps through snmpd(8) when the state of a monitored host changes. This includes a feature to monitor load balancers in existing Network Monitoring Systems (NMS).
  • The configuration of the carp(4) load balancer has been simplified. One carp interface can now contain up to 32 virtual host instances. Rather than creating multiple interfaces with the same address, you can create a single carp interface and assign it multiple carpnodes with their respective advskews.
  • Four new drivers for 802.11 wireless devices in version 4.3, including bwi(4) for Broadcom AirForce devices, upgt(4) for Conexant PrismGT USB devices, iwn(4) for Intel Wireless WiFi Link 4965AGN devices, and ral(4) RT2860 for Ralink Technology devices.
  • Improvements in the speed of flash drives.
  • Very large disk support for volumes with more than 2 terabytes (TB) of storage.
  • On the sparc64 platform, support for symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) and new eeprom(8) updates allow the firmware to be queried for installed devices.
  • A new M_ZERO flag for malloc allows for memory allocation and zeroing in a single operation.
  • OpenSSH version 4.8 includes security releases to fix a bad policy and an X11 hijacking problem. The big new feature is chroot support for sshd(8). An in-process SSH over FTP (SFTP) server, which links sftp-server(8) into sshd(8) rather than forking and executing it as a separate process, particularly helps chroot setups, because no special support files (for example, /dev nodes) are required.
  • Cwm(1) has undergone a major code clean up. Several new features have been included: the ability to resize windows and move the pointer with keyboard bindings; default key bindings can now be overridden by user-defined bindings while also allowing users to "unmap" a key binding; and "exec window manager" allows you to either restart cwm(1) or switch to another window manager—namely, another version if cwm(1)—without restarting the X server.
  • Support for more than 5000 packages, with several small bug fixes and improvements for OpenBSD version 4.3.

For a list of major machine-independent changes, visit the OpenBSD site.

Installing OpenBSD 4.3

The OpenBSD installation process can be intimidating and confusing to new users, especially those used to easier installation processes in other UNIX distributions. There are several installation methods, and steps vary by platform. Here are the basic steps to get started with a basic CD-ROM-based installation for the i386 architecture. (For information for other platforms, see the OpenBSD FAQ.)

Step 1. Get the distribution

First, visit the OpenBSD.org download page, choose any mirror on the list, and then go to /4.3/i386/. This is the first place you'll notice something different, if you're used to installing Linux distributions. The only .iso file is a 5 MB file called cd43.iso. Can this be right? Don't worry: With an OpenBSD installation, the boot CD is a bare-bones kernel; the rest is extracted from files that you can download and burn to an additional CD (or purchase a CD set from OpenBSD.org to help support the project). Make sure you download cd43.iso, all the .tgz files, bsd, bsd.rd, and bsd.mp. (Or, to make things easy, just download everything in the directory.)

Step 2. Create the installation media

Create a boot CD from cd43.iso and label it Disk 1. Create a regular CD with all the other files in a directory called /4.3/i386/, and label it Disk 2. Other options include purchasing a CD set, performing a network installation, or building a custom .iso file, but I find the two-CD method easiest.

Step 3. Start the installation

After you've created the installation CDs, boot the new server from Disk 1. Command prompts guide you through the installation process. You can find detailed instructions in Section 4 of the OpenBSD FAQ.

The most complicated part is the "Setting up disks" section, but you can skip a lot of this information by choosing to use the entire disk for OpenBSD (if you don't have any other partitions you would like to retain). Regardless of your partitioning decision, make sure you follow the "Creating a disklabel" section step by step, with the only deviation being to create larger /usr and /home partitions, if you desire. Note the two-layer partitioning system in OpenBSD: The first step sets up traditional fdisk-viewable partitions, while the second disklabel step sets OpenBSD sub-partitions.

Other than this, the only adjustment (to use your two-CD installation set) is to swap CDs at this step:

Let's install the sets!
Location of sets? (cd disk ftp http or 'done') [cd] 
Switch from Disk 1 to Disk 2 (the CD with all the files in /4.3/i386/).

Step 4. Start computing!

With everything set up, you're ready to start computing.

Getting started with OpenBSD 4.3

You might want to be aware of some steps before you start administering your system as a new OpenBSD user. First, by default, no users are included in the wheel group, which means that an attempt to use the su command will fail. Create new users from the command line with the adduser command, which leads you through a simple question-and-answer session to set up defaults (a one-time process) and to create your first user.

Say, for example, that you created a user called bsdadmin. If bsdadmin is going to be your primary administrative account, you want to be able to use the su command to access the root account quickly. To do this, log in under the root account, and then edit the /etc/group file to include bsdadmin in the wheel group. Simply append bsdadmin to the first line (the one that says wheel:*:0:root).

Second, check the system default settings in the /etc/ directory. Tread carefully here, as most services are turned off by default for a reason. OpenBSD uses rc.conf to launch most startup daemons. You'll see that services, such as httpd and nfs, are turned off by default—even PF is off. As an example, you can turn Apache (httpd) on by adding the line httpd=YES to /etc/rc.conf.

Although OpenBSD might not have graphics-based tools to help in system administration, the OpenBSD developers have given extra attention to providing extensive, accurate man pages for each component of the operating system. I recommend that you make liberal use of the stalwart man command any time you're confused or simply want to learn about a new tool.


A large number of packages are available for the most common architectures. You can find the complete list of available packages at the OpenBSD packages site.

To install packages, you use the pkg_add(1) utility. You can make things really easy by using the PKG_PATH environment variable. Just point it to your favorite location, and pkg_add(1) automatically looks there for any package you specify as well as fetches and installs the necessary dependencies of this package. You can just call pkg_add(1) with the package name, as in the following basic example:

$ sudo pkg_add –i screen


The new OpenBSD version 4.3 UNIX distribution continues its tradition of providing a highly secure operating system that can be deployed in the most critical areas of your infrastructure. Design principles, such as code auditing, extensive use of encryption, and careful configuration choices, combine to ensure that OpenBSD's secure-by-default philosophy holds true. Although it's most common to find OpenBSD installations in secure servers and firewalls, its wide hardware and software support make the operating system suitable for a large range of purposes. UNIX and Linux gurus alike will find many parts of OpenBSD familiar, and they will likely appreciate the areas in which it purposely strays from the pack.



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