My Journey with FreeNAS

I loved my Windows Home Server. Every time I needed more storage I would just buy the bigest drive I could affor and plug in it instantly expanding my storage. And then Windows Home Server 2011 came out. I read about the lak of Drive Extender but I figured it would still be good enough. It wasn’t. I really miss Drive Extender. I have 8 drives and don’t really need or want to deal with RAID so I am forced to somehow and try to manually balance the files in my shares. The problem being that my biggest hard drive in my server is 2TB and I have 3TB of video. How do I separate them?
Windows Home Server was the only Microsoft product I still used because there was nothing else like it out there. Now that they removed the best feature I see absolutely no good reason to staty with Microsoft at all. I am going to have to use a RAID solution and it would be nice to use an operating system that requires less resources.

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The most popular free NAS operating systems I have come across are OpenFiler and FreeNAS. I have used OpenFiler in the past to provide NFS storage for my ESXi Virtual Machines but not much else. I had also heard of FreeNAS as the “not for enterprise” solution so I didn’t investigate it much. I have since revisited both OpenFiler and FreeNAS and have setup virtual environments to test each.

My requirements for my NAS are as follows.
1. Sharing files with Samba must be as seamless as any Windows Server.
2. Ability to use iSCSI and NFS for ESXi Virtual Machine storage.
3. Must support software RAID
4. Be supported and have new releases relatively frequently (at least once a year)

What I would like:
– Ability to backup my Mac with Time Machine to the server without running any hacks on my Mac.
– Can be installed to a USB flash drive.
– Easy cloud backup

Both Openfiler and FreeNAS have all of my required features with possibly the exception of OpenFiler whose releases are very infrequent although they did just release version 2.99 this month.
So how did I choose between them?

I setup a complete virtual network on my ESXi server.
I had a pfSense box to be used as a router and a windows XP and Ubuntu 10.10 box to administer the router and NAS test box.

I performed the following tests on both OpenFiler 2.99 and FreeNAS 8 RC5 separetly
– File sharing: Can the client machine browse the network to find the machine or do they have to manually connect to the server? Does Guest sharing work? Does permissions based sharing work?
– RAID: what happens when a drive fails? How do you replace the drive?

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I found Samba file sharing on both OpenFiler and FreeNAS to require a bit of work. Definitely not as easy as Windows Home Server but I did manage to get both guest and permission based sharing working on both boxes. There was a problem with OpenFiler though. When trying to access the machine by double clicking on it’s computer name while Browsing the network, it prompted me for a password. Entering “guest” worked but FreeNAS and WHS never prompted me for a password before allowing me to see all the shared folders. I am sure there must be a samba setting that would fix this but I couldn’t find it.

For RAID, I found FreeNAS a little easier to setup but both systems provide the same type of functionality. FreeNAS supports ZFS and after I did some reading to learn what ZFS was I was very impressed. I found my reading on ZFS software raid being as fast or faster that hardware RAID intriguing. I next tried testing drive failures. I did this my removing the drive from the VM. I expeceted that the GUI on both systems would almost immediately show the removed drive but that didn’t happen. Upon reboot FreeNAS showed the missing drive but trying to figure out the drive was missing in OpenFiler was not straight forward. I next tried to install a new drive. Although it wasn’t clear I managed to do this on FreeNAS via the GUI and through the command line. I tried to add the new drive to Openfiler via the GUI but I couldn’t figure out how to add the new raid volume to the exisitng volume. I am sure it’s possible but don’t want to have to do a lot of research on how to replace drives in the event one actually fails.

Overall I found OpenFiler and FreeNAS to be very similar and I am confident either one would work. I ended up choosing FreeNAS for the follow small reasons.
1. Samba was slightly easier to configure and didn’t prompt for password when viewing the machine’s shared folders.
2. FreeNAS can be install on flash drive. (There are articles for doing this with OpenFiler but the solutions seemed a little to hackish for my tastes)
3. FreeNAS is based on m0n0wall. I use pfSense for my router/frewall and it is also based on m0n0wall.
4. ZFS is very interesting

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