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Ian Yates reviews FreeNAS, a cut of open source operating system FreeBSD that turns old PCs or servers into network attached storage appliances.

When the first NAS (network attached storage) devices appeared you needed deep pockets to buy one. For that reason they were seldom seen outside corporate data centres. SMB and SOHO users read the reviews and lusted after network storage but weren’t prepared to pay the premium prices.

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Into that yawing gap slid the open source community with FreeNAS software which lets you turn any old unused PC into your very own NAS device. The software is based on FreeBSD, one of the seemingly endless flavours of Unix floating around the Internet, with a nice GUI to make it easier for non-dweebs to setup and manage. We downloaded FreeNAS to see how it works, and indeed we discovered that it does work, but as they like to remind you in the USA, Your Mileage May Vary.

First off, it isn’t going to work with every old PC in your junkyard. The PC needs to be one that has drivers available for FreeBSD, so your target PC should be reasonably recent and reasonably mainstream. Ditto for any add-on cards installed – the more obscure the less likely anyone has written a driver to make it work under FreeBSD. Unfortunately, this particularly applies to RAID controllers you might have installed or want to install. Okay, so low cost recycled PCs don’t usually have RAID cards, but recycled Windows servers just might, and you can’t keep running them on Windows when you’ve already used up the licence in the upgrade to your new server.

You can install FreeNAS by downloading an ISO image which you then burn to a CD, stick the CD in the PC/server and boot. Our efforts to install FreeNAS went smoothly as advertised without a hitch until we tried to get it to recognise our HighPoint Rocket RAID 454 controller. This controller has drivers for FreeBSD so it should work with FreeNAS, and eventually it did, but not until we got rather a bit more geeky than we’d planned and spend a lot more time on Google looking for some other poor suckers who’d been down this path before. But that’s part of the appeal of open source isn’t it? The same blokey reasoning results in 40-year-old cars being restored in garages everywhere.

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At some point during the setup and install process we noticed that the latest version of FreeNAS is 0.69b2. You eventually get used to software which never seems to make it to “Version 1.0” in the open source world. We’re not sure if this is designed to dodge end-user fears about the first version of anything, or whether it helps cement the “not yet released so don’t whinge” state-of-mind of many of the developers. However, the available support is restricted to whatever you can find on the Internet, but then again, nobody will ask you for any money either. You get exactly what you pay for with open source.

Once your old PC has CD-booted into FreeBSD you need to tell it what to do about storage, and if everything went to plan, you should be looking at the webGUI Configuration page. As the name implies, this shields you from arcane command lines and looks surprisingly like any number of randomly chosen NAS or router web interfaces. Down the left side of the screen is a large array of management choices for setting up networks, storage, services and users/groups who will have access. Services refer to the various ways you can connect to your FreeNAS device, such as FTP, AFP and CIFS to mention just the most popular choices. FTP speaks for itself, AFP is Apple Filing Protocol for Macintosh users, and CIFS is for Windows users.

FreeNAS also knows how to be a universal plug-and-play (UPnP) Media Server for streaming audio and video content to your HiFi and TV. If you find yourself staring at the screen wondering what some of the words mean, have no fear – on the website under the “downloads” tab you’ll find “documentation” towards the bottom of the page. The first item is the aptly named “Quick Start Guide” which is a web-based walk through of the essential setup steps which you can watch as you click on the actual screen on your FreeNAS PC. There are many more available options than those the guide takes you through, but by following the bouncing mouse pointer you should be up and running without a hitch.

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After the bit-fiddling was done with our old retired Windows 2003 Server was fully reborn as a FreeNAS device and we could feel good about not spending any money as well as recycling the hardware we already had on hand. We didn’t feel so good about the noise this box makes when all its disks and fans are humming at full throttle, and we’re not keen on the amount of power it’s sucking off the grid. We’re a tad nervous about the now five-year-old ATA hard drives and whether their bearings are about to seize or if they’re overdue for a head crash. So we’re not about to store anything too important on our FreeNAS unless we’ve also got a copy elsewhere.

Now, we could easily overcome the noise, power and nervousness by using a more recent PC with less miles on the clock and quieter more-efficient SATA drives – but should you go out and buy new hardware just to run FreeNAS? Once upon a time that might have seemed like a good plan, but these days you can buy off-the-shelf NAS boxes without drives for under $500. They are quiet, power efficient and they have RAID support from the Linux embedded on chips inside. All you do is bung in some SATA disks and turn on the power. That sounds like a better idea if your desire is for NAS upon which you can rely, with support just a phone call away.

But if you have an older PC or server gathering dust, and you’re inclined towards the geeky end of the technology scale, FreeNAS seems to work as advertised, and you can’t complain about the price.

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