How I Set Up a Home File Server For Free - A Review of FreeNAS

 

Introduction:

I download a lot of music.  My wife takes a lot of digital photos.  My kids also like to save music and photos.  Between all of us, we have a lot of media that quickly accumulates on our home PCs.  The task of sharing this media between us is a challenge. My wife didn't know how to burn data CDs and my kids didn't have a CD burner.   What we needed was a home file server:  A dedicated computer used storage and sharing of our files.  My research found a ton of products available that would do the job.  There are several dedicated Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices that I could purchase, but even the cheapest ones are still several hundred US dollars.   Then there is the server software to consider.  Microsoft has its Windows Storage Server software that is also several hundred US dollars.  There is also many different Linux solutions that require a working knowledge of the linux file system and command line. 

In the end I settled on a free product called FreeNAS.  As the title suggests, FreeNAS is free network attached storage software, but that is not all.  It also has numerous features that make it extremely easy to set up, manage and expand.  Plus it has features that allow you to use it as a media server for various devices.  Since its hardware requirement is very minimal, this seemed like an ideal product for me to use.  With FreeNAS, I was able to use my old desktop PC (a Pentium 4 with 256 MB RAM), as my file server. 

FreeNAS Main Screen
Installation and setup:
To set up FreeNAS as a home file server, you must make sure you have all the proper hardware first.  This means you need a multiple port router, or switch to connect your file server to as well as a network cable for the server.  For the actual server, you will need a PC with at least one hard drive (I started with 2) and a CD-ROM drive. 

The setup process was very easy.  I downloaded the FreeNAS ISO file and created a Live CD which I inserted into my old PC.  If I wanted to, I could have started using it as a file server right there (by simply changing the IP address of the server), but I wanted something that I could use in the long term... something that could auto restart with no user intervention in the event of a power failure.  This meant installing it to the hard drive.  FreeNAS setup made this easy to do.  I simply selected which hard drive to install to, and that was it.  After a reboot, I had to set up the network interface.  FreeNAS auto-detects which network adapter you have, so selecting it was simple. Next I had to assign an IP address.  FreeNAS setup has a default address you can use if you want, but it may not work on your home network.  Its best to find out your workstation's IP address (typically assigned by your ISP through DHCP) and set up your FreeNAS server on a similar address.  Once this is done, you are pretty much done with working directly with that machine and can now access all your other options through the web interface, which I found very easy to use. 

Setting up file shares:
This is probably the most challenging part of the entire setup, but it was still relatively easy to do.  Setting up the server to share files is done in 4 steps:  Adding a drive, formatting the drive, adding a mount point, then setting up the share.  At first the task was a bit daunting, but after grasping the basic concept, it was really quite straight forward.  When I added 2 more hard drives to my server, it was simple to configure them for file sharing and within 15 minutes, I had easily tripled my file server storage capacity.

Additional Features:
Even though storage is its primary feature, there is much more that really makes this product shine.  It has the ability to support multiple network protocols, including AppleTalk, NFS, FTP, Unison, and iSCSI.  It also comes bundled with many extra services like the Transmission Bittorent client, a UPnP server, iTunes server and a basic web server.  This means that it is capable of more than just storage.  It can be used as part of your home entertainment setup, serving your media to your Home Theater PC, PSP, iPod, or other network devices.

Conclusion:
I'm happy to say that FreeNAS does a great job storing and sharing my files.  Since my initial installation of the product, I added and updated 3 hard drives on my server and the process was very easy and straight forward.  FreeNAS easily recognized my new hard drives and allowed me to add and share them for storage with no problems.  I use the Transmission Bittorrent client to download my media, so I am not tying up my workstation with a separate bit torrent client.  If I decide later to add a Linux PC to my home network, I can simply enable the appropriate protocol on my server and have instant access to all my files.  Ultimately my goal is to build a home theater PC, so when that is ready, I will already have the media server ready to serve up my media. 

I heartily recommend FreeNAS if you are looking for a free (or very inexpensive) solution for a file server.  You will need to know some basic technical information about your home network, like your IP address setup, and you will need to have a multiple port router or switch on your home network, but beyond that, it is relatively easy to manage and expand.

Resources:
Website:  http://www.freenas.org/
Download:  http://sourceforge.net/projects/freenas/files/
Installation instructions:  http://www.installationwiki.org/Installing_FreeNAS
FreeNAS Blog:  http://blog.freenas.org/
FreeNAS Knowledgebase:  http://www.freenaskb.info/kb/
FreeNAS Support Forum:  http://sourceforge.net/apps/phpbb/freenas/index.php

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Comments

by d2alphame (not verified) on 8. August 2012 - 15:20  (97398)

Coool. I'm looking forward to setting up a server at home. Just a little something for sharing files, streaming audio and video, playing multiplayer games, back up, Domain Name Service, and testing ground for new software.

by danny (not verified) on 8. June 2012 - 2:40  (94551)

Yes NAS4Free is the one to get.

Freenas 8 tottaly sucks, i agree on that

by jamesprescott on 15. May 2012 - 22:40  (93521)

Note that FreeNAS has fallen into fork hell. The official version is now 8.0.4 but recommends at least 4G RAM (6G+ for ZFS). This article seems to be about the previous version 0.7.x which had more modest hardware requirements and was still being developed as of late last year (0.7.2.8191 is available at the FreeNAS SourceForge page). There is also a 0.7.5 branch that became NAS4Free. Not sure where Openmediavault fits in.

I couldn't find anything that explained reasons for the forks or that would help anyone figure out which to use.

Also, grabbing an IP# similar to that handed out by your ISP's DHCP server is a bad idea. You can probably assume anyone setting up a NAS has a home router and suggest a reserved IP outside its DHCP scope (and possibly without WAN access).

by alexb (not verified) on 23. May 2012 - 0:54  (93868)

Thanks to this review, i did test FreeNAS 8 and also NAS4Free.

I pass on FreeNAS and went over to NAS4Free, that software really is the real deal as descriped all above.

The answer for the fork NAS4Free
The fork has been done because iX did not wants that the original devs FreeNAS 7 upgraded with FreeBSD 9 as FreeNAS 8 still use FreeBSD 8 with a lot of hacking shit.
NAS4Free is the original freenas that still is way completer, also has a better webgui with 5 years of development behind it.

I really do recommand it to everybody.

by Damian (not verified) on 29. February 2012 - 16:03  (89706)

@Bill_V

You should look into OpenMediaVault (openmediavault.org). The main developer of FreeNAS (after the creator dropped out) switched over to Debian (on which Ubuntu is based) to create OMV (FreeNAS is now developed by a for-profit company--but they are maintaining a free version). There is a miniDLNA plugin for OMV available on google code that was absolutely painless to install and set up.

by Bill V (not verified) on 17. March 2012 - 4:51  (90732)

@ Damian
Thanks, I'll check that out

by Bill_V (not verified) on 21. February 2012 - 6:07  (89163)

I'm researching setting up home server via Ubuntu (Ubuntu Server 10.10), there are XP and W7 pc's, one Roku M1001 and one Google TV on the existing network (no server). The XP and W7 aren't going away anytime soon if at all (i run Ubuntu 11.04 and Linux Mint 10 on an older pc that I plan to convert to server - Dell Dimension 2400, 2.3gHz Celeron cpu, 2GB ram, one 80gb HD and and one 200gb hd.
What I'm really looking for now is how to get MINIDLNA working with Sony Google TV, the Ubuntu forum i found isn't clear enough for a newbie like me, the MINIDLNA conf file has a lot of info in it, do I just delete all but what is necessary to interface and edit that portion? Does anyone have print screen of the conf file? Thank you all for your consideration.

by Eniduro (not verified) on 13. February 2012 - 21:09  (88793)

I wish all the best of what you i doing

by badman (not verified) on 8. February 2012 - 18:44  (88527)

FreeNas-ty does have several good features but getting it setup and working is NOT one of them IMO. I have used debian and SMS ( a slackware based linux server distro ) to create a home server. I've also played with fedora but none of these unix solutions have what I'd call ease of use.

Specifically documentation and what each parameter accomplishes is very lacking in non geek terms. I'm sure someone can state that you shouldn't be using any of this stuff if you aren't a well versed geek and that's probably true.

I've been playing with linux and bsd too for many years but I'm not succeeding at getting my propeller hat spinning correctly. For all the time and effort I've put in I think buying a macmini with Apple's server OS is probably the better part of valor now.

Reviews like this one here that claim server setup with a unix OS is easy are really only accurate for a small subset of computer users.

by dar124 (not verified) on 6. January 2012 - 18:22  (86703)

Hello, after reading thru the comments here I have 2 quick questions about FreeNAS.

1. Does FreeNAS combine all the hard drives in the file server to show as the total amount of storage available?? (Example) If I initially set up the server with a 2TB drive and then down the road add an additional 1TB hard drive to the machine, will it show 2 drives for storage (one 2TB and one 1TB) or will it just show 3TB of available storage capacity??

2. What anti-virus / firewall software is used or recommended to be used with FreeNAS??

Thanks in advance.

by pbasch (not verified) on 9. November 2011 - 17:34  (82995)

I have a couple of older Thinkpads. I'd like to use one of them as a FreeNAS server, with a 1tb or 2tb USB hard drive attached. Has anyone tried that?

by Swinada (not verified) on 2. June 2011 - 18:53  (73134)

Not sure if someone still reads this thread. Could you run an application with FreeNAS so it can be used from various computers? i.e. parts look up software installed on the freeNAS sever can be accessed and used by 3-4 computers at the same time?

by Christo (not verified) on 23. August 2011 - 20:56  (78218)

Yes someone is still reading this from time to time...

by Remah on 9. June 2011 - 23:50  (73574)

I'm not sure if anyone is monitoring this article either. I just happened to be looking and saw your comment.

The simple answer is YES, you can. Being UN*X-based you can run many *NIX applications like you would with Linux.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unix-like

FreeNAS is a character-based interface built on FreeBSD which is a complete operating system behind the FreeNAS interface.
http://www.freebsd.org/

I've setup several servers for myself and mainly used FreeNAS for music streaming and RAID storage. It has the ZFS storage system which provides software RAID with data-integrity checking so that any damage to data can be picked up (RAID will happily duplicate damaged data as it doesn't check the integrity of files).

Unlike Linux distributions where parts are developed separately and packaged together, FreeBSD has everything developed together in the same revision tree. It is efficient and normally requires less hardware than Linux. For example, I was running ZFS without problems on a Pentium 3 PC with only 384MB RAM when the minimum recommended was 1GB. But Linux has better high-end performance.

by mjt328 on 22. August 2011 - 15:26  (78150)

I'm just about to take the plunge and set up a home server/storage device for my Windows7/XP network using FreeNAS. I was originally planning to use it just for file and printer sharing, but your comment about using it for media streaming got me thinking about that possibility too. Which leads me to ask: what media centre software you use in your networks, and are there are any special tricks to configuring it?

by jasond (not verified) on 24. August 2011 - 14:28  (78262)

I am using Ubuntu Desktop 10.4, I was using FreeNas before, but its a bit of a pain to add more software to it, so it makes it a bit limited, however it does run on very low hardware. My Ubuntu With Ubuntu its VERY stable and I can have everything, FTP, miniDLNA, Samba, Printer Server, TV connected computer (internet browsing), transmission Remote Desktop, etc... However I do use WDTV Live for viewing DLNA streamed from the server... WDTV is awesome for DLNA streaming... I have never had a single issue... I also use Ubuntu on two of my home computers... I never use Windows anymore. For my system specs I use an Intel Celeron 430 @ 1.8 ghz (lower power usage) with 2.0 GB of ram (However 1 GB of Ram would probably have been sufficient as my ram usually doesn't go over 23% use..) My file server usually runs 24/7 for the last year now... without any stability issues.

- Jason

by mjt328 on 25. August 2011 - 14:37  (78337)

Thank you very much for the info ... I like Ubuntu myself, but the rest of my family is still using Windows exclusively so I will have to make this as easy as possible for them to use ... but with the info you supplied and some research on my part, I'm reasonably certain I can come up with a Windows/Linux hybrid that will do the job ... One more question, if you don't mind: given your experience with home servers, do you think that my so-far-bullet-proof 7-year old Toshiba laptop (1.86 ghz Pentium M chip, 1.5 GB of ram) would work as the hardware platform for the server, provided I can beef up the cooling for it? It's got lots of USB port for external drives and I do have a powered 7-outlet USB hub as well in case I need more.

by jasond (not verified) on 26. August 2011 - 7:42  (78373)

I think a laptop would work fine for home server and those specs are plenty for Ubuntu if you decided to use Ubuntu and probably okay for XP as well... I know how it is to get family switched over to ubuntu my wife won't switch on her PC despite the fact that she gets a virus on XP once a month at least... but with a file server they wouldn't be using it to do anything other then using it as medium to backup files, stream movies to your xbox, ps3 or WDTV live... My wife uses ubuntu on one of my laptops to check facebook and she has gotten use to it on that computer... I think Ubuntu is the best option IMO, as its much more stable and secure than Windows, so you will have less need to restart all the time and require less high end hardware. Plus with a file server its turned on more often thus leaving it wide open for attack if you are using windows... and a windows pc on a network is more vulnerable. To share files from windows to ubuntu is relatively straight forward. You could either setup SAMBA on the server, and then on windows you can set it up as just a shared samba folder... or you could setup an FTP server and the windows machine uses filezilla... its pretty easy to setup.. Just search youtube (Samba +ubuntu AND Windows +Ubuntu) for walk through tutorials and vsftpd on google for an FTP server walkthrough. I wouldn't install Ubuntu 11+ I would stick with 10.04 desktop version its a much better version.

The only issue I personally would have with the laptop idea is then you have a bunch of external hard drives running amok outside of your system... and each 3.5 drive requires a power plug.. I had a couple of 1 tb externals and I took them out of the external case and slid them into my file server so I could avoid that issue on top of that Sata is much faster at transferring then USB I still have two externals plugged in also as I am very serious about having double or even triple backups of everything, because hard drives can fail at random... I usually use western digital which I have had the best performance with... and I have had a couple of WDs that have been running for 5+ years now and one just finally failed... so I am glad I had a backup. It maybe smart to buy multiple different brands of hard drives too, as I think that's what google does, so then you don't put all your eggs in one basket so to speak... in case you get one brand that is a "bad batch" then you have totally different backups. 2 terabyte external western digital hard drives are 90 dollars on newegg.com.

I built my file server for about 200 dollars (not including the extra hds), but you could probably build one for less in the US, the hard drive the operating system is running on is VERY old its only 20 gig... but there is many TBs of extra drives plugged into SATA... Actually every SATA port is being used as of right now.

Hope that helps.

- Jason

by mjt328 on 26. August 2011 - 10:58  (78384)

Thanks again for your advice. Much appreciated.

by Anonymous on 26. June 2010 - 17:04  (53187)

I love freenas, it does require a little Networking knowledge but I have setup remote access to the box with port forwarding in my router, and a little ddns magic. The slew protocols it supports is great. The best thing is that it will run great on any old hardware. Mine has only been down when my power wen out. Never had it hang up. It is not a full blown server, but if you use it as a networked attached storage you will be very happy.

by Anonymous on 25. May 2010 - 3:14  (50245)

Love freenas, been running a dedicated server about 8 months with a couple of crashes early on ( seem to be release related ). Rock solid for 6 months running 24/7. I stop server only for firmware updates. Been running about 2 months since its last reboot. 5 windows machines, 2 xboxes, a ps3, and a Wii have access to it. Built in torrent downloader is a big plus. I tried openfiler but setup was just beyond my skills and patience. I was about to try windows homeserver but hardware requirements are a bit steep for my older machine. In the process of setting up a media only server seperate from my first one. Unless my needs change freenas will be my first choice as it has been good to me so far.

by Anonymous on 8. January 2010 - 0:52  (40530)

I still do not see the difference in a home server and just setting up another computer with Vista or xp and share everything. We have windows server at the office with server 2003 and I really do not see any real advantage other than It is has a RAID ARRAY.

by jasond (not verified) on 24. August 2011 - 14:40  (78265)

A home server can be built with low power in mind and stability and for pretty cheap considering linux does not need extreme hardware... like Ubuntu... I don't use windows anymore even though I have it installed on Dual boot with my laptop, why use Windows when you can just use VirtualBox.. Also my home server is using a celeron (see above post for specs) which is plenty for file sharing, DLNA, browsing the web, FTP etc..., where as my main laptop has a dual core and a heavy duty graphics card... so if you are like me and have your server hooked into your tv as a media center (DLNA streaming, FS, FTP, transmission etc) then its nice to have it running 24/7, I have a 40 inch TV and the server runs perfectly on it without a graphics card... it only costs about 5-8 dollars a month to run, where as if my laptop was running all the time it would run up the electricity as well as probably run hot after a while... On top of that like you said a file server can have massive amounts of storage...

by rikmayell (not verified) on 13. January 2010 - 16:24  (40959)

Well, you could easily have a RAID array on one of your desktop PCs as I do, so there's no difference there.

The difference:

The maximum number of in bound connections to a post NT 4 workstation system is 10. Should you attempt a further connection you will get access denied. It's worth remembering that one mapped drive is one connection, one 'through' connection to a printer another. It follows that it's easy to run out of connections.

Rik Mayell - Category Editor, Best Free Windows 7 / Vista 64 bit Software

by joe.bennett on 10. January 2010 - 16:01  (40782)

You are correct on one level. When it comes to simply sharing your files on the home network, there is practically no difference between using a home server and setting up file sharing on Windows PC. But if you don't always have all your PC's on all the time, or if you are concerned about the security of your windows file sharing PC ,OR if you are interested in setting up a home theater pc (HTPC) that needs a uPNP server, there is a huge difference.

I have 3 PC's at home, 2 of which I don't allow my kids to use. When I am not using them, I keep them shut off. Using file sharing on those PC's would be useless to my kids because when my pc's are off, they can't get to the stuff they want to see.

Windows PC's are great workstations, but they don't have the type of security that a dedicated server would have. Many services are turned on by default. Leaving a Windows Vista PC on all the time to share files would basically be an open doorway into my network.

My ultimate goal is to set up a HTPC so I can play media on my home entertainment system. A lot of HTPC's use Universal Plug and Play (uPNP) technology to make this happen. A dedicated home server lets me implement that protocol where it would be harder to do on a Windows workstation.

It basically boils down to what your needs are. My needs require the use of a home server. Yours may not.

by jasond (not verified) on 24. August 2011 - 14:42  (78266)

I have been using minidlna on Ubuntu with WDTV live for over a year now... it works flawlessly... DLNA rocks.

by Anonymous on 7. January 2010 - 3:43  (40442)

Having tried everything mentioned here I took my old desktop (duo core 2g with 2g ram and 500g hd). I installed Windows Home Server. Not being a big fan of MS I will admit WHS is by far the best investment at $100. It allows remote access to not only file shares which access can be customized for family but can also allow Remote Desktop Connections to any home networked computer. It also backs up all your desktops each evening and provides an easy "restore" if a desktop fries! I have XP, Vista and Win 7 networked. I have since added several external USB TB drives and moved all my DVD's onto it. I can stream movies to my wireless home entertainment center next to the 47" LCD with no stutter. I can stream music to remote laptops limited only by their connections speeds. I can remotly access any application on any machine I own from any place in the world. I can remote print, copy and upload. Best investment I have ever made. So easy to use it will amaze the most ardent critics of MS! It is by far the best and easiest to use product they have ever made. I do not sell, work or even like MS .... but Windows Home Server is by far the winner.

by Anonymous on 7. January 2010 - 19:59  (40506)

I can do all the same things with my Ubuntu installation. Sorry you had to waste $100 on crappy windows software. I had no previous knowledge of the Linux environment, but setup of each protocol I needed was a cinch. I am running FTP, Samba, Cacti, Webmin, HTTP server, SSH server, I run torrent downloads, remote desktop, remote backup. Anyway, everyone knows that the capabilities of Linux are far beyond that of Windows, because Linux is open source, so millions of people contribute to the development, instead of one, terrible company seeking only money. I am happy with my Linux server, and I am glad that Linux software is free and easy to set up.

by Anonymous on 29. January 2010 - 16:41  (42356)

I'd be interested to hear your specific technical reasons for why you consider Windows Home Server to be "crappy" software. While it's great to display a little swagger while commenting, it does little to enlighten.

So - exactly what is it about Windows Home server that you have a technical issue with?

"Curious minds want to know..." ;-)

by rikmayell (not verified) on 13. January 2010 - 16:46  (40964)

I'm sure that there are many others who would like to share you experience.

Setting up a Linux server from the ground up, covering those aspects required for a typical home network, would make a great article.

Can we encourage you to contribute?

Rik Mayell, Category Editor - Best Free Windows 7 / Vista 64 bit Software

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