Fvwm on NetBSD

Back when I first started university the computer labs in the engineering faculty used to mostly be filled with a type of thin client called a X terminal connected to servers running Solaris. This was my first exposure to pretty much any kind of Unix at all. Fortunately having been using DOS for many years meant that I learned the basic Unix bash shell pretty quickly to do normal run of the mill stuff. The window manager installed on pretty much all the Solaris servers you could access was fvwm. It was set up in pretty the default way, but with almost no modules started up by default, if I remember correctly they had the clock, the pager, xbiff and a rxvt window. I believe they had it set up this way because of the large number of X terminals they had (I’d guess a couple of hundred when I first started uni) and because they wanted to reduce network and server load for when there was a large number of students on the servers. As an end-user it was adequate, but the features of fvwm were definitely under utilised. The X terminals were not popular amongst the other engineering students, probably partly because they weren’t trained in their use, and because they were set up mostly with software engineering students in mind. This is why amongst my friends and myself, we often prefered using the X terminals because we would be guaranteed that we would get a computer when most of the other labs were full to the brim! There were also another two labs that instead of X terminals, had proper Solaris workstations in them. One had some old lunchbox style sparc stations that were a bit slow if you connected to the localhost. The other one had relatively fast Pentium (I don’t know what they were) intel based workstations there.

FVWM now

Pretty much every Unix distribution I’ve used of late either has a package for FVWM and an option to install it, or is quite capable of running it after being compiled from source. The base configuration has a lot more turned on by default than the university had, but it is still pretty sparse. Configuration of the program is done via a config file in your home directory, which can be quite daunting if you’re not used to setting up programs this way. The configuration file however allows for a crazy amount of customisation and given time you can make your desktop emulate most of the different popular operating system interfaces. The default has the window decorations looking very much like the window manager from motif/cde, but you can change the window decorations as you see fit, again using the configuration file. Some distributions have it already customised, for instance Debian adds its normal Debian menu into fvwm and updates it dynamically with software you install. Back when I was using Red hat Linux there was a perl based (I think) configuration wizard that helped you install themes.

The Good

One of the best parts about it is the fact that it is so light on resources. I’m running it on my old sparc station, it only has about 384 meg of ram and two 50Mhz processors, and fvwm runs as fast as if it were on a modern machine. The memory footprint is very small. It is incredibly customisable as I mentioned before, many people have created themes and configurations that you can borrow from. There are many scripts out there that implement most features you could want out of a window manager. The base configuration isn’t very pretty, but certainly functional.

The Bad

Changing the configuration can be difficult and may require scripting (or installation of scripts) to achieve the effect that you are after, which is obviously difficult for new users to do. Some distributions in the process of trying to make the most of fvwm, make their configuration files unreadable, and frankly un-friendly. This is a minor problem if you know how to make changes you want, but could be a major problem if you’re not prepared.


I tend to use fvwm in its default configuration with a few minor tweaks, partly because that’s what I’m used to, partly because that’s what I like. It’s what I use for any of my Linux/BSD systems that are a bit old or limited in resources, and even comes in handy when connecting to a powerful machine over the network via X. For power users who like to tinker with their window manager, you’ll enjoy using fvwm, and get a lot of satisfaction out of the result once you’ve completed your custom configuration. If you’re an ordinary user you might find the default settings adequate, but find it lacking when you want to change a simple setting.

FVWM on my Sparc

FVWM on my Sparc


4 Responses to “Fvwm on NetBSD”

  1. February 28, 2012 at 9:26 am

    Actually, Debian only adds entries for its menu system because that package his hideously out of date compared to what I’m releasing upstream. Look at the “fvwm-menu-desktop” script for more information about that.

    From what I can see also, FVWM is out of date in pkgsrc as well…

    • February 28, 2012 at 11:15 am

      Yes you are quite right, pretty much all the packaged versions are out of date for all platforms (that I’ve seen anyway). I’d like to see them update them as compiling from source is not something most users would be willing to do. I tried compiling the latest source on NetBSD but there was something wrong that meant it didn’t work, I forget what the problem was but I suspect it was likely an issue specific to NetBSD or pkgsrc as I’ve been able to compile it on other platforms in the past easily.

  2. June 29, 2012 at 11:28 pm

    I recently tried the new version of FVWM (2.6.5) compiled from source on Redhat linux. It works pretty well, but I haven’t had time to tinker with it. Because it looked pretty good on Linux I want to get the source compiled on my netBSD box too. But upon trying it I discovered that the configure script didn’t detect a bunch of installed libraries. This is because netBSD packages go into /usr/pkg/… instead of the normal locations others use. Of course this means the compiler and configure scripts can’t find them! I need to tinker with it a bit too work out a solution (if there is an easy one). If you have one please let me know!

  3. February 9, 2013 at 9:41 pm

    Yay good news! Recently the NetBSD team updated fvwm to 2.6.5 in the pkgsrc tree, so now installing a good up to date version it easy! It works brilliantly on my little sparc.

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