We've all been on the wrong end of a solution that was sold as inexpensive, free, time-saving, energy saving or one that offered a quick return on investment only to end up spending more on that alternative solution than a mainstream one. For some technologies, you're better off with a brand name, but for a select few, generic is the only way to go. FreeNAS is one of those surprising projects that not only saves you a huge amount of money but is so simple to use that you'll wonder why there's so much mystery surrounding network-attached storage(NAS).
FreeNAS is a free NAS solution. Put simply, a NAS device is a repository for all your documents, spreadsheets, videos, PDFs, backups and anything else you want to store on it. A traditional file server* is a type of NAS, but such file servers are relics and are now the subject of mint-julep-assisted front porch reminisces of days gone by. NAS is where the party is these days.
Building Your NAS Device
The first thing you'll need is a system on which to install FreeNAS and to attach disks for storage. Any standard PC system will work for your NAS, as there are no special requirements for the software or storage. However, I suggest the following hardware list for your NAS system: Pentium III or higher CPU, 512MB RAM, a network interface card (NIC) and as much disk space as you want. If your hardware doesn't support Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID), FreeNAS allows you to create a software RAID configuration.
Serial ATA (SATA) disks, if your system supports them, are inexpensive, fast and recommended for a NAS solution. 500GB SATA disks cost approximately $50 US, and 750GB SATA disks will set you back only a cool $60 US each. When you purchase disks for a storage solution, always purchase in pairs so that, at the very least, you'll be able to create a disk mirror (RAID level 1). If you're paranoid about disk failure, buy a couple of spares for replacements since disk technology changes often.
Your hardware should be new enough to support USB, devices since you'll want to install FreeNAS to a USB drive. Pick up a 256MB USB drive for $10 US at any office supply or discount store, or online.
Download a FreeNAS CD image (ISO) and burn the image to a CD-R disc.
- Insert the USB drive into an open USB slot.
Boot your system with the FreeNAS CD in the CD/DVD drive.
- Once the system boots, select Option 9 (Install/Upgrade to hard drive/flash device, and so on.)
From the Install & Upgrade Menu, select Option 1. (Install 'embedded' OS on HDD/Flash/USB.)
- Click OK on the next screen.
Select your USB drive from the Choose installation media screen and click OK. The installation takes less than five minutes.
- When the installation is complete, restart your NAS device, making sure that your BIOS is now set to boot to the USB drive, referred to as Removable Media in some BIOS boot menus.
- Once booted, the NAS presents you with a simple console screen where you'll configure your network. If you've configured the network (LAN), go directly to the web address listed for you.
Login to the FreeNAS web interface with user name admin and password freenas (Change the password from the text menu or the web-based menus). The web interface is your FreeNAS management application. Using this application, you'll never need to login directly to the FreeNAS operating system.
Let's assume that you installed two disks into your FreeNAS system, and they are not a hardware RAID set but you want to setup a software RAID volume.
- To begin, mouse over Disks from the menu and select Management. Click the + icon on the right side of the screen. Select your first disk from the Disk dropdown list, select Software RAID from the Preformatted file system dropdown menu and click the Add button. Repeat those steps for the second drive. Click the Apply changes button to finish this step.
- Mouse over Disks on the menu and select Software RAID. Enter a RAID name (RAID1, for example), Ctrl-click both disks in the Provider area, click the checkbox next to Create and initialize RAID and click the Addbutton. Click the Apply changes button to create the RAID mirror.
- Mouse over Disks on the menu and select Format. Select RAID1 from the Disk dropdown list. Select UFS from the File system dropdown list. Enter a volume label (e.g., files), and click the Format disk button.
- Mouse over Disks on the menu and select Mount Point. Click the + icon to add a mount point for your new volume. Select RAID1 from the Disk dropdown list. Enter a mount point name (e.g., Files) in the Mount point name field and click the Add button. Click the Apply changes button to create the mount point.
- Mouse over Services on the menu and select CIFS/SMB. Click the checkbox next to Enable on the right side of your screen. On the Settings tab, enter a NetBIOS name for your FreeNAS system and the Workgroup to which your other computers belong that will have access to this NAS system. Select No for Local Master Browser and for Time server, unless you want them to perform those functions in most cases you won't. Click the Save and Restart button to enable the CIFS/SMB services.
- To setup your RAID disk as a share to which you may map a drive from your workstation, click the Shares tab located adjacent to the Settings tab from Step 5. Click the + icon on the right side of the screen.
Enter a Name, a Comment and a Path into the appropriate fields.
Click the button to select the path.
Click the Add button to create the new share.
Click the Apply changes button to restart the CIFS/SMB services.
- To map a drive to the new share, click Tools, Map Network Drive from My Computer on a Windows workstation.
In the Folder dropdown, type:
\your_freenas_server_nameshare_nameClick Finish to map the drive.
If you're going to use FreeNAS as a file server and map drives to shares like you would to a Windows file server, the next steps guide you through that process.
Your new NAS system is up, running and ready to serve. FreeNAS has some very advanced features as well Active Directory and LDAP integration, iTunes configuration, Dynamic DNS, NFS file sharing, several remote access protocols and firewall management to name a few. FreeNAS is a complete and feature-full NAS solution for your network regardless of size or scope.
This article is by no means a complete treatment of FreeNAS, but it is a start in the right direction and introduces you to the wonderful world of NAS. If you started with nothing on this project, purchasing everything new would cost an estimated $350 for a fully mirrored 1TB NAS. Its nearest commercial competitor would be approximately three times that price but with far fewer features than FreeNAS. Including download and burning time, the total project time for this FreeNAS solution is about two hours.
Do you like technical money-saving project articles like this one, or do you prefer to keep it on the lighter side? Write back and let me know.
* A Windows server providing disk shares to which you map drives.
Ken Hess is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of open source topics including Linux, databases, and virtualization. You may reach him through his web site at http://www.kenhess.com.