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building a freebsd desktop environment
building a freebsd desktop environment

Building a Rock Solid FreeBSD Desktop Environment

Making a FreeBSD Workstation is Easy!

Building a FreeBSD desktop doesn't have to take you several days. It doesn't even have to take longer than an hour. Believe it or not, almost every open source and/or free software project has a strong focus on ease-of-use. So, you can forget the propaganda campaign that claims "linux is hard to use".

I like starting with the method I'm about to walk you through, because it gets me up and running with a desktop environment, and everything I expect to have on a workstation, quickly and easily. I find it silly to be stuck on TTY compiling and compiling, before I get a desktop going. Besides, I still go back and do that. I just don't do it right away on a fresh FreeBSD system.

Installing the FreeBSD Base System

FreeBSD Boot Menu

A FreeBSD desktop typically consists of two main parts. Traditionally, you will have a server and a client. The server is usually referred to as your "display manager", and the client is usually referred to as a "window manager". These can be a pain in the ass to configure, by hand, if you don't have the FreeBSD manual to constantly refer to. And, getting all of the various settings just perfect can be nearly impossible without help or lots of time. So, we're going to do a generic installation to get up and running. We will optimize our FreeBSD desktop later.

Go ahead and find the FreeBSD installation media appropriate for your architecture. They should be listed on FreeBSD's official website. I'll be working with FreeBSD 12.1-RELEASE and the amd64 architecture, for the purposes on this tutorial. I usually use KVM/libvirt/QEMU for virtualization. But, for the purposes of this blog post, I am going to use Oracle's VM VirtualBox. If the reasons for that aren't immediately clear, it's because it tends to be used more frequently.

So, without any further delay, allow me to show you how get any desktop environment that you want to use on FreeBSD, installed and configured without any struggle at all. This entire process should not take more than an hour, from start to finish.

building a freebsd desktop environment

Getting virtual with FreeBSD (for half-steppers only).

From Oracle's VM VirtualBox dashboard, select New to create a new virtual machine. This virtual machine will host our FreeBSD desktop environment.

After selecting New from the dashboard, VirtualBox should open another window. Here you can name your virtual machine. This is where you set your default hostname. You can change it later, if you want. Select 'Next'

RAM and Disk

Then it will ask you how much RAM you want to allocate. I have a large amount of RAM, so I allocated 20GB. I don't expect you to have that much, nor will you need it. But, you should be generous with your RAM and your desktop environment. These days, I'd say, go ahead and give it 4GB or mroe. But, you can certainly get by with much, much less.

After that, you'll select the type of virtual disk image you'd like, this is your virtual harddisk. I selected virtual disk image or 'VDI'. And, I allocated a decent amount of space for the desktop software. You'll needΒ 

a bit more, if you decide to compile the desktop from source than if you simply install packages from the binary package repository. So, bare that in mind, when you decide how much space to give your machine.

Things to Consider

The type of workstation you want should factor in to how much virtual harddrive space you allocate, as well. So, a more full-featured desktop like Gnome or KDE should be allocated more space than their lightweight desktop counterparts, like XFWM, LXQT, awesome, etc..

I selected dynamically allocated, because my hardware isn't going to see much of a performance boost from being preallocated. Though, in all cases it would help to be preallocated. Once you've finished doing all of that, you should find yourself back at the VirtualBox dashboard.

Configuring and Installing FreeBSD

Once you boot into the installation program, go ahead and select 'Install'. After that you'll need to tell it your keymap, if it has not automatically detected it. For a lot of you that's going to be 'US' for United States. Next, it'll ask you to select a hostname for the base system. And finally, you'll partition your harddrive and select some default packages to have installed.

Setting up your partitions for FreeBSD

FreeBSD has an amazing file system called ZFS that you should checkout. It's pretty much better than sex. I highly recommend it. But, again, for the purposes of this video, I'm selecting UFS. UFS is also a great file system. FreeBSD has some amazing technology that is all worth investigating.

I also chose to install FreeBSD onto a single partition, which isn't exactly recommended, but it's an option. This was for the sake of ease while writing the article. If you're a first time user or otherwise can't be bothered to manage multiple partitions, one partition that takes up your entire virtual disk will be fine for you as well.

For my boot partition I chose Master Boot Record or 'MBR', BSD and GPT are also acceptable.

It'll now prompt you to set the password for root. Root is what you think, it's your superuser account. A notable difference between root on linux and BSD is the 'wheel' group. Be sure to select a very strong password for your root account. Any compromise of the superuser account would mean that the entire machine was compromised.

Configuring Network Devices

Now, since I chose a network installation, I am required to setup networking or quit. You may be able to continue without doing so. Hopefully it will detect your network device, most of yours will be built-in. If not, you should attach it before proceeding and see if it will detect it.

As well, most of you will want to select DHCP for a dynamically allocated network. If not, you can punch in your static network settings at this time. For IPv6 enabled networks, your DHCP option is likely called SLAAC. Go ahead and enable that, if you need it.

Next you'll set the system's timezone. For me, that's AmericaNew_York. So, I selected North America, United States and then Eastern (most areas). You should select the appropriate timezone as it applies to your system.

Selecting Boot Services and Security Settings

Now you'll select which services to start with FreeBSD at boot time. For my purposes, I chose to enable SSHD for remote shell access and ntpdtime so my clock would synchronize with internet time servers at boot. This is a pretty critical stage. But, for building a workstation, you'll mostly only need to be sure your time syncs appropriately here.

For the FreeBSD hardening options, you can safely enable them. However, some of the options will make debugging difficult, if you're a developer. Since this is a daily driver, a workstation or otherwise a desktop. I strongly recommend you disable sendmail, as you should only have a need for local mail and remote logging as you shouldn't need to access your log files on a remote server. Again, if you can justify leaving them enabled, then go ahead.

I find it very useful to clear /tmp at boot time. This is a performance option that I prefer and recommend.

Creating a User Account

After that, you'll create your first user and set a password for that account. And you may proceed to create any other user accounts that you think you might need or want. I chose to add my user to the wheel group. At this point the base installation is finished. You're going to exit the installer and reboot into the system. So you can start building it. We're going to dive straight in, so when you get a chance be sure to remove your installation media before rebooting. Reboot. :)

If you fail to reboot the installation media, it will you boot your back into the installer. It's okay for that to happen. Just be sure to remove the media at that time and hit CTRL-ALT-DELETE to reboot again. Then select Multi-User at the boot options screen and login with your 'root' account to prepare the system for it's desktop environment.

Some Helpful Basic Changes

We have a few small configuration changes to make manually. Actually, for our purposes of getting into a desktop early. We're just going to install the packages we need to function, make sure the system is up-to-date and configure them..

One you're logged in, run the following two commands to check for core FreeBSD system updates, download and install them. In the case that you did have available updates to install, follow the instructions on screen and reboot.

Starting Your Desktop Configuration and Installation

Install sudo and FreeBSD's desktop-installer

Now, I kind of let it correct me here. Because, it'll ask to update your binary package repository for you, when you ask for it to install the first package. You'll want to accept that, so you have the latest version of the desktop-installer script.

Once that's complete, edit the '/usr/local/etc/sudoers' file and add the user you created to sudoers. This way, when you're logged into the desktop shortly, you can login as your user and sudo to root to configure to configure the system or install other desired packages.

If you're unsure how to add your user account to sudoers, open '/usr/local/etc/sudoers' by typing 'edit /usr/local/etc/sudoes', searching for the uncommented like that reads 'root ALL=(ALL) ALL' and below it add '<your username> ALL=(ALL) NOPASSWD: ALL'

This will enable that user account to use the sudo command and run commands as rootl

After that, run the desktop-installer to begin install your FreeBSD daily desktop workstation.

Now, most of this script should be self-explanatory and it actually doesn't take that long to run (depending on your FreeBSD workstation's specifications. But, I'll walk with you through it anyway. Because, perhaps you're not familiar with "BSDisms".

Right away, it asks us if you want to install and configure a firewall. As a workstation this is a big yes. It'll warn you that changing your firewall settings runs the risk of disconnecting your SSH session. Really, this is rarely the case, unless your keep-alive is about to time out or something, between reading here and acting there. The danger would be more along the lines of if you get disconnected. So, if you happen to close the SSH port, or if you're unsure, be sure to make sure your SSH port is not blocked before you disconnect.

Finally, it should ask if you want to update to the latest and greatest binaries/ports tree or use the quarterly snapshot release. We want the latest and greatest. For one, we want our desktop-installer script to be as current as possible, so that if there's any quirks in hardware drivers that have been patched, we get the fixes. But, for second, generally we want the latest and greatest on FreeBSD. May the daemon be with you and give you the power to serve! ;)

You can choose either, but when it asks how you'd like to update your copy of the repository, I prefer 'portsnap'.

Once the repository finishes updating, the desktop-installer script will restart. It can take a while, FreeBSD developers release early and often. So, now it should remember our selections and we can jump right through to selecting a desktop environment to work with.

For firewall type, I chose option 5 (protect this machine only using stateful rules). This is likely the option you want, but, as always, if your goals are different from mine, choose the option most appropriate. Take this moment, if you have another machine to verify that your SSH port is still going to be open, if you fear that it has closed. That is, if you are installing over SSH, I mean.

Next it'll prompt if you want to update. Fuck yeah, you definitely do. Go ahead and agree to that and it'll restart. This should be the last restart before we're booting into a desktop. :)

When you boot back up, you can run the desktop-installer script for the final time. It will have remembered your earlier selections, but you should still pay close attention to be sure nothing has gone wrong. Remember, again, that when you reach the point of updating your repository to be current instead of quarterly, you should select 'no' or else you'll be back in that loop.

I actually chose KDE this time, just to see if it would successfully pull down my preferred desktop. Generally, when I'm at this stage of a configuration, I go with a smaller desktop environment, just to get up and running quickly. And, the lattest is what I recommend to you.

LXQT, MATE, XFCE4, Lumina, IceWM, WindowMaker and fluxbox are all such options. Among them I favor MATE and LXQT, depending on whether I want GTK or QT respectively.

And there you have it. A proper, fast and ea

sy FreeBSD desktop deployment. Enjoy!