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 (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.

To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.