Network-Attached Storage on the Cheap

I discussed in an earlier column using Microsoft's $180 Windows Home Server to turn an old PC into a media-streaming, backup-friendly server. "Great idea," wrote many a reader, "but too pricey." For those penny-pinchers, I suggest FreeNAS.

The browser-based interface of FreeNAS lets you control your server from any PC connected to the network.
Based on the FreeBSD operating system (a Unix derivative), FreeNAS is a server operating system that offers lots of features, a very small footprint, and a can't-beat-it price (it's free). Developed by an open-source community, it is constantly evolving (with even nightly builds).

FreeNAS is more complicated to install and use than Microsoft's more feature-rich product, but people willing to navigate the sometimes confusing installation routine are rewarded with a robust network-attached storage device.

Choose Your Hardware

The hardware requirements for FreeNAS are pretty minimal: a motherboard with an x86 processor, 128MB of RAM, 32MB of free drive space (on a bootable drive, a CompactFlash card, or a USB key), a network card, and a BIOS that supports a bootable CD-ROM. I installed the OS on the tiny Via Artigo PC that I wrote about earlier this year (a small, impressively power-efficient little PC). It's an ideal option, as you should consider how many watts your old PC will draw in 24/7 operation before putting it into service as a NAS device. During FreeNAS installation, you'll also need a monitor, a keyboard, and a CD-ROM drive, but afterward you won't need them for your NAS box.

To begin the process, I downloaded the FreeNAS ISO disc image from freenas.org (version 0.686.3, revision 3011, was the current, most stable one available at the time of this writing). I also downloaded a PDF of the installation guide, which is a must for navigating the somewhat unintuitive process.

I burned the ISO image to a CD, booted my intended NAS box from it, and began the speedy process of installation. I selected the option to create two partitions on my hard drive, one for FreeNAS and one for data. Then I worked my way through a series of tasks that included configuring my network interface and setting the box's IP address. Once those steps were done, I could access the FreeNAS box via a Web browser from another PC on my network.

Doing just that, I instructed FreeNAS to mount the second partition on my drive, and then initiated CIFS (Common Internet File System), the protocol that lets Windows PCs connect to the NAS. (For a Linux PC, you would use the NFS--Network File System--protocol). FreeNAS also supports various flavors of RAID, but the development team suggests configuring each disk individually--to ensure they work well--before establishing a RAID setup.

You could stop here and have a very useful device, but FreeNAS has numerous other features worth exploring, including RSYNCD, a network utility for incremental backups over the network; Unison, a file-syncing tool; and FTP, for easy file transfers. Plus, I like the freeware version of SyncBack from 2BrightSparks, a file-backup and synchronization tool--and it works like a charm with my FreeNAS box.

I'm impressed with FreeNAS. Windows Home Server has more media-friendly capabilities like Xbox 360 connectivity, but if you are looking to set up a basic NAS box using your existing hardware, FreeNAS is well worth a spin.

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