Desktop FreeBSD Part 8: Updating the Core System

By Ed Hurst | Posted at 12:33 PM
Now that we have everything installed and setup the way we like it, it's important to keep an eye on updating the system. The emphasis is not so much slavishly chasing the cutting edge of BSD technology. Instead, our focus will be on security updates and optimization.

One of the major selling points with FreeBSD is security. How silly it would be if we didn't do the minimum necessary to insure it stays secure. FreeBSD coders are some of the best on earth, but if perfect software could be written, no one could afford it. From time to time, flaws are discovered after the product is released. Fixes are often released within 24 hours of discovering a flaw, when it comes to core system files. Ported add-on packages may take longer. The core system fixes are seldom offered as a new package built and ready to download. You will have to download a patch, apply it and rebuild the flawed binaries from source. Occasionally, a flaw will affect the whole system base and will require rebuilding the whole thing.

Which brings us to the issue of optimization: Rebuilding the system base is a good idea in the first place, simply because it offers the best opportunity to make your system run as well as it can. When you install FreeBSD from a CD-ROM, you are getting generic binaries with the lowest level of optimization. Virtually everyone who tries a rebuild will swear it makes things better.

While this sounds like a major task fraught with risk, it really is quite simple. The good folks of FreeBSD have made it so easy, it's painless. Even when one considers doing an upgrade using a slow dialup connection such as mine, you can be sure the time factor is reasonable, and the results well worth it. To demonstrate the possibilities, here's the stats of my first effort:

  • Task: update from FreeBSD 4.9 to 4.10
  • Fastest transfer rate: 2600 Bps
  • System source update: 20 minutes (using CVSup)
  • Buildworld: 1.5 hours to compile
  • Buildkernel: 12 minutes to compile
  • Mergemaster config files: 15 minutes
  • Total time investment: roughly 2 hours

This was done on my old home-built machine, which at that time had the following profile:

  • Gigabyte GA-7 series mobo, AMD 750 chipset
  • AMD Duron 800, 384MB RAM
  • Maxtor 40GB/7200RPM harddrive

At each step of the way, I took the defaults whenever possible. Please note that the only tweaking I chose to do was in /etc/make.conf, selecting "i686" as the CPUTYPE. I could have chosen "k7" because my CPU is a Duron, but at the time I was focussed on safety. As I later learned, most of the time it works out that compiling with CPUTYPE=k7 in actual practice shows up as k6. You can find some guidelines on this file and decide what best suits your purposes. Most of the entries are of no interest to the desktop user.

Here is the process, step by step.

1. Insure that you have CVSup installed. Installing packages is covered in earlier lessons, so we'll assume you have it. Log in as root and navigate to /usr/src/share/examples/cvsup. There you will see several files which you can copy and modify for use. Our interest here is the file stable-supfile. Copy it to /usr/src and open in your favorite text editor. Two main items here. Go down to where you see:


You need to change this to a mirror that is presumably near you so that you can get a fast and strong connection. The list of mirrors can be found at /usr/share/doc/en/books/handbook/cvsup.html near the bottom of the page. The list shows about 17 mirrors. If you know how to use the ping command, you can time the response to find the one CVSup server which will serve you quickest. With my slow connection, it was safer to look for the one geographically closest, by using the host command to identify where each mirror was hosted. Mine ended up with:


A few lines down, I made sure there was one like this:

   *default release=cvs tag=RELENG_4

This keeps me up to date with the latest packages for the 4.x branch of FreeBSD; as of this writing the latest stable version is 4.10. Save the file and close. From the same source of example files, copy the refuse file over to /usr/src. This file keeps you from downloading a horde of listings for language-oriented packages you probably won't use. Check to make sure you approve of what's refused in the file, then save and close.

2. Connect as user to the Internet, but run CVSup as root. Simply type on the commandline:

   cvsup stable-supfile

What should pop up will be an ugly pink window with two frames. On the left is a bunch of statistics; on the right will be a live listing of what the program is doing. Look it over, but what really matters are the tiny buttons on the lower left-hand corner. Click the one that says "Start" and watch, if you have time. As stated above, my system was finished in 20 minutes downloading the difference between the source files for 4.9 and for 4.10. Because of compression ("zipping") the replacement rate was quite a bit faster than the packet flow rate, as shown in the status in the left frame.

3. When finished, the little buttons will change to show it. Close the application and drop your connection to the Internet. Now is a good time to close down applications, shut down the X server, and work in the console. This will allow your system to devote maximum resources to the work of rebuilding. Log out of your user account and login as root.

Navigate back to /usr/src. Issue the command:

   make buildworld

This took my system an hour and a half. Naturally, your mileage may vary. If there are going to be any problems, this is where you are most likely to see them. However, they are extremely rare. If it fails, you'll get an error notice that you can copy and paste in a message asking for help. The Handbook page makeworld.html will provide the necessary details. As long as you have not installed anything from a failed buildworld, you can simply resume using your system as before. For the truly paranoid, do this: Just before you command buildworld, you can use the script command.

   script /var/tmp/mw.out

This will create a file that has a record of every keystroke and every commandline message you get, starting with what follows the command script, and ending only when you type exit. This file will be saved in /var/tmp as mw.out (makeworld output). If all goes well, you can delete the file later. Be sure to type the command exit when buildworld is finished. Assuming all went well, you'll know when the command prompt returns empty, with no error messages above it.

What happens is that a script will tell your computer to rebuild the newest version of the basic C libraries, install themselves, then build again for optimization, and install themselves again. Then the rest of the system is built.

4. Of course, you'll need to update the kernel, too. But since nothing new has been installed, you can't use the Handbook instructions for building a kernel the normal way. You have to use the script:

   make buildkernel

This took 12 minutes for me, but was faster when I went back and built a custom kernel from the update. For now, we won't do that. Let's just stick with the trusted generic kernel, because you'll need to keep an updated generic kernel on hand for emergencies.

5. When building is finished, and there's no problems, run the command:

   make installkernel

The installation should be pretty quick. Now is the time to reboot and see if everything works with the new kernel. Go ahead and run the X server, use your peripherals such as soundcards, CD drives, etc. When you are satisfied all is well, close all the applications and drop back to the console mode.

6. Next, drop down out of regular run mode into single mode. On FreeBSD, this is very easy; simply type:

   shutdown now

By leaving out the switches for shutdown, such as -h (halt) or -r (reboot), you are telling shutdown to go into single mode. This means you are pulled back out of the system, as it were, running only the absolute minimum. The reason we do this it that it's not wise to have programs running while replacing them. Now it's safe to install your new base system:

   cd /usr/src
   make installworld

This will take a few minutes. When it's finished, we have one more step before running our new system.

7. Invoke mergemaster from the commandline so that you can compare all our old config files with the new defaults. Often a system update will include changes to the layout of the config files, and the old ones may not work properly in the new system. Mergemaster will show you the differences line-by-line using minus (-) for what the old looks like, and plus (+) to indicate how the new one is different. Read the prompts on the screen and decide what you want to change. For the most part, I accepted the changes offered. I keep a written record of changes I make to the various config files on my system. While it's annoying to have to stop and record every change, and note why I did it, things like mergemaster become much easier. In fact, the simplest way for me is to accept all the new files, then go back and edit them individually according the changes I made before the update. Naturally, I'll check the manpages and read the comments in the config files in case there's a new option I like, or an old one is removed.

Now we're done and ready for the first test run:

   shutdown -r now

In a couple of minutes, I was back up. The X server started a little faster, things seemed brighter and sharper, but it may have just been my own internal glow at knowing the update worked.

Next time you install a system, especially with a recent release, consider just getting the base system installed, then running the buildworld process (minus update) to optimize everything before going any further. The primary difference this makes is that anything you compile afterwards will compile quite a bit faster, because the system libraries already have been optimized.

Note: By the time you read this, FreeBSD 5.3 should have become the current release, and the 4.x series will be obsolete. In the 5.x series, there's a lot more code, and most of these steps took a bit longer. However, my system does not seem to run any slower.

Ed Hurst is Associate Editor of Open for Business. Ed is also the Music Director for Grace Baptist Church of Kickapoo Creek, Texas. He loves computers, runs FreeBSD and GNU/Linux and reads all sorts of things. You can reach Ed at