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Benchmark Comparison of NetBSD 2.0 and FreeBSD 5.3

Gregory McGarry


With the recent releases of NetBSD 2.0 and FreeBSD 5.3 operating system, many new and exciting features have been implemented. Both criticism and commendation on performance, reliability and scalability have been directed towards these releases.

This paper presents a suite of benchmarks and results for comparing the performance of these operating systems. The benchmarks target core operating system functionality, server scalability and thread implementation. These benchmarks are useful server-based criteria for demanding applications such as loaded webservers, databases, and voice-over-IP (VoIP) media relays. The results indicate that NetBSD has surpassed FreeBSD in performance on nearly every benchmark and is poised to grab the title of the best operating system for the server environment.


The FreeBSD and NetBSD operating systems are complete Unix-like operating systems sharing a common BSD Unix lineage. Although both operating systems share a similar development style and source code, each project has traditionally had very different objectives. Ask almost anybody familiar with at least one of the projects as to which is the better operating system, and the reply will usually recommend FreeBSD for servers and desktop systems, and NetBSD for obscure hardware. FreeBSD has historically been clean, fast, reliable and scalable and NetBSD is known to support fifty-four different system architectures.

However, in recent years, the traditional arguments for choosing one operating system over the other has waned. FreeBSD now supports six popular system architectures and NetBSD recently set Internet land-speed records.

Long criticized for their slow release schedules, the NetBSD Project announced in December 2004 the release of NetBSD 2.0. NetBSD 2.0 represents more than two years of development over the last major release, and includes significant developments in the areas of symmetrical multiprocessing (SMP) and high-performance POSIX threads. Despite the long delay in delivery, the release has been warmly accepted by the industry.

One month earlier, the FreeBSD Project announced the release of FreeBSD 5.3; the first ``stable'' release of the FreeBSD-5 development branch. In contrast with NetBSD 2.0, FreeBSD 5.3 has received a barrage of criticism of its performance, scalability and reliability[1]. Indeed, the FreeBSD-5 branch has been plagued with problems from the very beginning. These problems have primarily centered round an ambitious new scheduler, a complicated threading model and fine-grained SMP architecture. All these problems have left most FreeBSD installations stuck with the aging FreeBSD-4 branch.

With simultaneous releases of NetBSD 2.0 and FreeBSD 5.3, the industry is now returning to the original questions: Which is the better operating system? For servers? For embedded? However, this time, the traditional response is not being used.

In the remainder of this paper, benchmark comparisons are presented to compare the underlying performance of the operating systems.


The responsibility of the operating system is to manage resources and provide services to applications to access these resources. In demanding environments, significant load will be placed on these resources and the performance of the operating systems under this load is of specific interest. Some of the benchmarks measure the efficiency of the operating system for frequent, time-sensitive functionality. Other benchmarks seek to identify the scalability of the operating system during network operations[2].

Three categories of benchmarks have been used. The first category measures core operating system functionality:

The second category measures the scalability of the operating system under application and network load:

The last category measures the overhead of the native threading model:

The benchmark hardware was an Asus P4-800SE mainboard, Intel 3GHz P4 processor (1MB L2 cache) and 1GB RAM. Both NetBSD 2.0 and FreeBSD 5.3 default installations were used for the benchmarks. No custom kernels were used and no kernel tuning beyond the default installation was performed.

Benchmark Results

This section presents the benchmark results for the three benchmark categories.

Core operating system functionality

The primary resource managed by the operating system is the CPU. Management of process access to the CPU is managed by the kernel scheduler using priority-based, time-slice allocation. On a single-CPU machine, the appearance of parallelism is achieved by quickly switching between process contexts. There is CPU overhead associated with this operation. It is important for the operating system to minimize this overhead, particularly during high system load.

Through general use of the operating system, many processes will be created, executed and terminated. This lifecycle is an integral part of the operating system and the efficiency of the operating system to perform it is important. All processes in BSD are created using the traditional fork/exec Unix process-creation model. This model was part of the original Unix design, and is still implemented in virtually every version of Unix available today.

The fork and exec operations are system calls. A system call is the interface between the user-level application and the kernel. The fork system call creates a new process. The newly created process gets a unique process identification and is a child of the process that has called fork. The calling process is the parent. The exec system call overlays the process address space with data from an executable file. A process is terminated with the _exit system call. It is generally invoked indirectly using exit() in the standard C library.

The benchmarks developed in this section measure these important operating system functionality. The results are shown in table 1.

Table 1: Performance comparison of core operating system functionality.
benchmark ($\mu$s) NetBSD FreeBSD
system-call overhead 0.368 0.393
context-switch 2.64 3.45
process creation (dynamic) 146 168
process creation (static) 63 80
process termination (dynamic) 43 64
process termination (static) 32 36
program load (dynamic) 463 1424
program load (static) 96 266

System-call overhead

The system-call overhead benchmark measures the time for the operating system to switch from unprivileged user mode to privileged kernel mode and returning to unprivileged user mode. This metric is performed by measuring the time to execute the getpid system call, which is the simplest system call available in the operating system.

The results in Table 1 shows that NetBSD 2.0 marginally out-performs FreeBSD 5.3.

Context-switch time

The context-switch time benchmark measures the time for the operating system to switch from the execution context of a process to another. A context switch requires the kernel to save the address space and CPU registers of the current process and load them for the next process. The kernel must also manage coherency of the CPU caches. This metric is performed by creating two processes connected with a bi-directional pipe. A one-byte token is passed alternately between the two processes, causing a context switch to each process to services access to the pipe.

The results in Table 1 shows that NetBSD 2.0 marginally outperforms FreeBSD 5.3.

Process lifecycle

The process creation time measures the execution time of the fork system call. There are several optimizations which the operating system will perform to optimize the creation of the new processes. During a fork system call, the kernel will share the parent address space read-only with the child. A new process identification is allocated to the child process in addition to other data structures used for process-specific accounting. If the child subsequently writes to the address space it shares with its parent, a copy-on-write of the altered page is made into the child address space. However, if the child process terminates immediately, or invokes the exec system call, the address-space is returned unchanged to the parent without performing a complete address-space copy. This metric is performed by creating a pipe between the parent and child processes. The parent measures the time for the child process to be created when it receives a one-byte token sent on the pipe from the child process.

Process termination time is equally important. The address space must be reclaimed in addition to other data structures used for process-specific accounting. This metric is performed by the parent sending the child process a SIGTERM signal and invoking the wait4 system call to wait for child termination.

The execution times of the fork and exec system calls are also sensitive to the address space layout of the process. In particular, dynamic-linked executables using relocatable objects produce sparse address spaces in comparison to static-linked executables. Memory management is impacted by the sparse address space. The benchmarks have been developed to compare the metrics for dynamic-linked and static-linked executables.

The results in Table 1 indicate that NetBSD 2.0 marginally outperforms FreeBSD 5.3. The performance difference for dynamic-linked executables is particularly noticeable.

Scalability benchmarks

Scalability refers to the ability of the operating system to perform operations during increased demand for resources. Scalability is particularly important on systems with high application and network load. For example, a system running a demanding network or database server may require significant network sockets and fork many worker child processes. The performance of the operating system as the system load increases is an important criteria for system architecture.

Forking new processes

Continuing from the previous section, the first benchmark considers the process creation and termination times as the number of system processes increases. This benchmark measures the architectural design of the scheduler. Results for process creation and termination times for dynamic-linked executables are presented in Figure 1 and Figure 2 respectively. The results for static-linked executables are shown in Figure 3 and Figure 4 respectively.

Figure 1: Process creation times for increasing number of system processes with a dynamic-linked executable.

Figure 2: Process termination times for increasing number of system processes with a dynamic-linked executable.

Figure 3: Process creation times for increasing number of system processes with a static-linked executable.

Figure 4: Process termination times for increasing number of system processes with a static-linked executable.

The plot for process termination may be difficult to interpret. The benchmarks starts with 3000 system process and measures the time to terminate each process as the number of system processes is reduced.

These results indicate the NetBSD kernel has very efficient data structures for managing system processes to permit constant access-time to allocate new process resources, such as a process identification, and to locate the process for termination. For this benchmark, NetBSD has excellent scalability, since the time to perform process creation and termination is not affected by the number of system processes.

The FreeBSD kernel has an access time which scales linearly with the number of system processes. There are also many occasions when the access-time is very fast, resembling a constant access time. An explanation for this result may be that an optimization within the FreeBSD kernel is performed to arrange access to resources appropriately to minimize the access time. However, there are also many occasions when the access-time is half as fast as the nominal value. Perhaps the optimization does not work well for every workload?

Memory-mapped files

The mechanism for mapping shared libraries into a process address space is the mmap system call. This system call permits a process to map data of arbitrary size from a file into its address space. The mechanism is also used by some databases, web servers and proxy servers to map files into memory rather than reading the file contents into the system buffer cache.

To support the mmap system call, the operating system must maintain data structures for system-wide memory accounting and data structures for the process-specific file-mapped data. A benchmark is used to measure the performance of these data structures[2].

The benchmark maps many 4KB windows from a 200MB file, each offset by 4KB from the previous window. A common optimization for the operating system is to ``lazily'' map the data into the address-space on the first access, rather than mapping it at the time of the mmap system call. The benchmark measures the time to invoke the initial mmap system call, shown in Figure 5, and the time to access the first byte of the mapped window, shown in Figure 6.

Figure 5: Comparison of times to map a 4KB window from a file into process address space for increasing number of mappings.

Figure 6: Comparison of access times for a 4KB memory-mapped window for increasing number of mappings.

The results show excellent scalability for both NetBSD and FreeBSD. Both operating systems permit constant access-time for mapped-memory files with increasing load. FreeBSD has the peculiar behavior that the memory mapping time is clearly distributed around two values.

For the initial mmap system call, NetBSD has 113% improved performance over FreeBSD. For accessing the memory-mapped file, FreeBSD has 116% improved performance over NetBSD. For frequent mapping operations which are not accessed, NetBSD will show better performance. However, for the general case with infrequent mapping operations and frequent accesses, FreeBSD will show better performance. The total of both benchmarks indicate that for a single mapping and subsequent access, FreeBSD shows a 38% performance improvement over NetBSD.

Socket creation scalability

Sockets are the basis for communication in BSD operating systems. They can be used for inter-process communication and network communication.

A socket is created using the socket system call. The system call returns a file descriptor which permits the traditional file operations to be used for communication. Benchmarking the socket system call measures the time the kernel takes to allocate the necessary data structures and the time to find the lowest unused file descriptor for the process. This latter task becomes more difficult for a large number of open file descriptors and affects scalability.

The results for socket creation for increasing number of allocated sockets are shown in Figure 7. The results show that socket creation time for both NetBSD and FreeBSD increases linearly with the number of allocated sockets. The rate increases slightly more for FreeBSD than NetBSD, and NetBSD produces faster allocation times. Neither NetBSD nor FreeBSD shows scalability problems.

Figure 7: Socket creation time for increasing number of allocated sockets.

Binding addresses to sockets

When a socket is created with the socket system call, it exists for an address family, but does not have an accessible address associated with it. The bind system call assigns an address to the socket.

This benchmark measures the time for the kernel to allocate the necessary resources to assign an unused TCP port to the socket. The benchmark is not important for scalable web servers, however it is important for voice-over-IP (VoIP) proxy servers and media relays.

The results for the socket binding benchmark are shown in Figure 8. The results show that both NetBSD and FreeBSD scale linearly with the number of bound sockets. For a small number of bound sockets, NetBSD has the better latency than FreeBSD. However, the linear gradient for NetBSD is significantly worse than FreeBSD. This result indicates the FreeBSD scales better for binding addresses to sockets.

Figure 8: Socket bind time for increasing number of bound sockets.

Thread Benchmarks

NetBSD 2.0 is the first release to support the new threads system based on scheduler activations[3]. It includes the implementation of a POSIX-compliant threads library that uses the scheduler activations interface. The library includes many optimizations to attain impressive performance[4].

Thread creation benchmark

The importance of the process lifecycle was previously mentioned; from process creation, through process scheduling, to process termination. Similarly, threads go through the same lifecycle and the performance of the thread implementation to manage this lifecycle is important. For many applications, the demands on the thread implementation are more onerous than the demands on the kernel scheduler.

The times to create a new thread for increasing number of threads is shown in Figure 9. This result shows that the FreeBSD thread implementation creates new threads with constant time. This result indicates that FreeBSD has good scalability. The creation of the first thread in NetBSD has significant latency. This result occurs because the NetBSD threads implementation defers the initialization of the threads library to the creation of the first thread rather than doing the initialization when the threads library is loaded.

For less than 250 threads, the time to create a thread is better in NetBSD than FreeBSD. For more than 250 threads, the thread creation time increases as the number of threads increases. Of particular concern, the relationship is not linear for the number of threads. Although one thousand threads is ample for most multi-threaded applications, the poor scalability may be a problem for some applications.

Figure 9: Thread creation time.

Thread lifecycle, condition variables and mutexes

Another benchmark is to measure the complete lifecycle of a thread, by creating, joining and terminating a thread. The processing time is presented in Table 2.

Threaded applications also make extensive use of mutexes and condition variables to serialize access to shared data. Mutexes are commonly used and in many cases their access is uncontested. A benchmark which measures the time to acquire an uncontested mutex is shown in Table 2. Another benchmark measures the time for a thread waiting on a condition variable to respond. The benchmark uses ten worker threads and a master thread. The worker threads conditionally wait on a variable that the master thread sets. When the variable is set, a signal is broadcast to wake any worker thread. The woken worker thread clears the condition variable, signals the master to set the condition variable, and immediately waits on the condition variable. The results of the benchmark are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Benchmark comparisons for thread operations.
benchmark ($\mu$s) NetBSD FreeBSD
thread lifecycle 2.35 4.33
uncontested mutex 0.0372 0.282
condition variable wakeup 1.21 4.86

The results of these benchmarks for the basic POSIX thread primitives clearly shows that the NetBSD thread implementation contains many impressive optimizations. The threads implementation framework based on scheduler activations permits low-overhead, efficient allocation of CPU resources to the threads[3]. The effect of restartable atomic sequences for the mutex implementation is also significant[4].

Thread context-switch time

The reasons for optimizing process context switches equally applies for optimizing thread context switches. The ``ping-pong'' benchmark measures thread context-switch time for different number of threads. The benchmark was devised to test the quality of Solaris threads library implementations[5].

The benchmark consists of a pair of threads in lock-step synchronization, resembling the game of ``ping-pong''. For each iteration, each thread is alternately blocked and unblocked by the other. The game continues until a specified number of iterations has been completed by each thread. The game also permits the playing of multiple concurrent games within a single process, testing the performance when the thread scheduler is under load.

Three experiments are considered:

  1. one game, 2 players, 1000000 iterations, default stack size
  2. four games, 8 players, 1000000 iterations, default stack size
  3. 500 games, 1000 players, 100 iterations, 32KB stack size

The number of mutex operations and the number of context switches should be twice the number of iterations. The times to create the threads and play the game are shown in Table 3.

Table 3: Result of the ``ping-pong'' benchmark.
benchmark ($\mu$s) NetBSD FreeBSD
1 thread creation time 374 215
game completion time 954 660 3 139 256
2 thread creation time 517 446
game completion time 5 049 811 13 062 477
3 thread creation time 23 535 41 154
game completion time 140 551 275 145

Experiment 1 shows that the creation time for the two processes favors the FreeBSD implementation over the NetBSD implementation. This result agrees with the results shown in Figure 9. The creation of the first thread incurs a significant penalty on NetBSD. However, the time to complete the game is significantly higher for FreeBSD over NetBSD. This is due to increased latency in the thread lifecycle and the much longer mutex acquire time for FreeBSD over NetBSD.

Experiment 2 shows similar results to Experiment 1. For four threads, the overhead of the initial thread creation in NetBSD is not as significant. The improved processing performance of NetBSD over FreeBSD is similar for both experiments.

The default thread stack size in NetBSD is 2MB. To create a large number of threads, the stack size can be reduced using the PTHREAD_STACKSIZE environment variable. In experiment 3, the stack size is reduced to 32KB. For 500 threads, the faster thread creation implementation on NetBSD outperforms the FreeBSD implementation. For 500 simultaneous games, the margin of improvement of NetBSD over FreeBSD is noticeable, but less significant as the other experiments.


This paper has presented a suite of benchmarks and results for comparing the performance of NetBSD 2.0 and FreeBSD 5.3 in the areas of core operating system functionality, network scalability and thread performance.

The results clearly indicate that recent architectural decisions in the NetBSD operating system have closed the performance gap between NetBSD and FreeBSD. In fact, NetBSD has surpassed FreeBSD in performance in the areas investigated in this paper. Significant performance improvements are obviously visible in the thread implementation.

Microbenchmarks are not always the best indicators to make judgments on the overall performance of one operating system over another. However, they are useful to infer an understanding of the architectural decisions that go into building an operating system. For many applications, the results presented in the paper may never affect performance. For others, the scalability of the operating system may simply not permit the application to run suitably.

There are many other interesting developments in NetBSD 2.0 and FreeBSD 5.3 that deserve to be compared. Although NetBSD 2.0 has outperformed FreeBSD 5.3 in most of the benchmarks presented here, FreeBSD 5.3 has made significant developments with its symmetric multiprocessor (SMP) architecture, particularly in the area of scalability with fine-grained locking. NetBSD 2.0 continues to use a single lock to serialize access to kernel mode. Additionally, the performance of the thread implementation on multiprocessor systems, where thread concurrency can be achieved, would be worth investigating. Benchmarks for these areas are the objective of future research.


The scalability benchmarks were supplied by F. von Leitner[2]. The threads benchmarks were provided by the Gelato project at the University of New South Wales, Australia ( The ``ping-pong'' benchmark was provided by Sun Microsystems[5]. Source code for the other benchmarks can be found at


J. Matzan, ``FreeBSD 5.3 is ``stable'' but not production-ready'',, December 2004.

F. von Leitner, ``Benchmarking BSD and Linux'',, October 2003.

N. Williams, ``An implemenation of scheuler activations on the NetBSD operating system'', In Proceedings of the 2002 Usenix Annual Technical Conference, 2002.

G. McGarry, ``An implementation of Restartable Atomic Sequences on the NetBSD operating system'' USENIX Annual Technical Conference, June 2003.

Sun Microsystems, ``Multithreading in the Solaris Operating Environment'', A Technical White Paper, 2002

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