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 Anonymous on 3. January 2010 - 12:21  (40123)

Ever hear of Opera Unite? Built into the Opera browser since version 10.10 http://unite.opera.com/ Home file server made easy.

by Anonymous on 3. January 2010 - 14:25  (40135)

The article deals with permanent home servers and not temporary ones.

by Anonymous on 3. January 2010 - 15:32  (40138)

You will definitely need to arrange some sort of backup for the data on it - I have had this in the past, before converting to windows home server, and I have had FREENAS crash a couple of times, cauing me to lose some data. If you data is irreplaceable then I recommend you duplicate all the data elsewhere or on a second server.

Paul C

by Anonymous on 3. January 2010 - 15:34  (40139)

as an addendum to this, if you can configure a usb drive or two on your frrenas server, then run a scheduled copy of any changed / new data since the last copy, it works quite well - which was my solution

Paul C

by Anonymous on 3. January 2010 - 18:31  (40148)

This sounds like a practical solution for those who may have an older computer sitting around. However; computers can take a lot of electricity. I hooked up one of those Kill-a-Watt electricity usage monitor gadgets (get it at Amazon.com or stores) to my decent 5 year old computer. My computer costs $595 per year (at $.354/Kwh as my rate)! Yeah, I leave it on most the time, but I do power off the monitor when not in use.

Does anyone know of a more energy efficient solution to share media/files within a household?

by joe.bennett on 3. January 2010 - 19:09  (40150)

That is very true, but I did have a chance to check out Opera Unite. It is a very clever concept and a good way to temporarily share your files and media. It has its purpose, but it is definitely not a dedicated file server.

by PC-Mat on 3. January 2010 - 20:30  (40156)

Excellent Point Paul!

by PC-Mat on 3. January 2010 - 20:32  (40158)

I think it is important to point out that FreeNAS does support SSH.

by PC-Mat on 3. January 2010 - 20:37  (40159)

WD Mybookworld. They are excellent little network hard drives with a gigabit ethernet port, and a SATA hard drive built in. I do believe it also uses a "green" WD drive. I recommend NOT using the supplied software. Just set it up by going to its home page.

In this solution, you are just powering a little controller board and a hard drive vs a whole computer.

by jeffd150 on 3. January 2010 - 21:31  (40163)

who is charging you 35 cents/kwh? jeez, at that rate solar might even pay for itself...

by Anonymous on 3. January 2010 - 22:31  (40170)

Sounds like a good product I'll have to check it out as I've been exploring setting up NAS on my home network. Every time I look at just the dedicated NAS systems I find that a computer to handle the whole thing seems the cheapest way and then you have the computer to use as well as a NAS device. So while a dedicated NAS offers some advantages I don't think price is one of them. And if a computer goes down on the network you could reconfigure and still have a computer to use. One quick question I do have though, is does it support RAD and if so which one's. That's the biggest thing that a dedicated NAS seems to offer is the data security using RAD.

by PC-Mat on 4. January 2010 - 0:40  (40176)

Do you mean RAID?

by joe.bennett on 4. January 2010 - 2:01  (40184)

Per the Features page on Freenas.org, FreeNAS supports, "Software RAID 0,1,5 and mix (1+0,1+1, etc…)"

by Anonymous on 4. January 2010 - 3:18  (40186)

Why not just use NAS drives attached to the network? I have two 500 gig drives that can be accessed by any computer on my home network. If you pay attention to eBay you'll find 'em to be fairly inexpensive. I played around with a file server for a while, proved to be more of a hassle than it was worth. Just my .02!

by Anonymous on 4. January 2010 - 17:20  (40247)

Something is wrong with this picture! I pay half that per quarter for my whole house and barn including six PC's, two servers and everything that goes with them.

by MidnightCowboy on 4. January 2010 - 18:07  (40250)

Attention TSA Spam Patrol.

Be prepared for a sudden influx of links to alternative energy suppliers (LOL)

by Anonymous on 4. January 2010 - 19:28  (40254)

I'm the original "expensive electricity" poster above. I live on the Central Coast of California. PG&E is my supplier. The bill I received early December was for $144.90 for the previous month. I used 715 Kwh.

I have a "tiered" rate setup. Baseline is $.11531/Kwh up to 303.8 Kwh. The highest tier I use is 201-300% of baseline, where I see that I am now being charged even more than I posted - $.38066/Kwh.

Yes, I am using a lot of electricity. That's why I got the electricity measuring gadget.

by Anonymous on 5. January 2010 - 0:47  (40270)

I'm a big proponent of FOSS software. And I'm a diehard Linux/BSD advocate. But when it comes to a home file server, for once I'm forced to admit Microsoft has the current best solution for most people with Windows Home Server. And at something like $99 for an OEM copy, it's pretty hard to argue against it.

Worth a look. Especially since Microsoft will let you download and try it out for free for 30-days.

by Anonymous on 5. January 2010 - 3:32  (40277)

I have to agree. I run both FreeNAS and HomeServer. Homeserver is the superior product. Of course you are paying for it. It is the ONE MS product I felt compelled to buy.
FreeNAS is good though as a fileserver it just is not as simple as HomeServer. Pretty much anyone can install, configure, and manage HomeServer.

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 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 joe.bennett on 8. January 2010 - 2:48  (40544)

"Anyway, everyone knows that the capabilities of Linux are far beyond that of Windows..."

Please be careful when making such bold statements. This may be the case for some software packages, but not for everyone, then there is the usability factor. It may very well be true that a Linux server distro has more features than Windows Home Server, but if I'm an average computer user who has absolutely zero networking experience, then spending $100 on Windows Home Server may be the best option.

In my case, I happen to have some basic networking experience, absolutely zero Linux experience, and next to no funds to spend, so FreeNAS was the perfect option for me. I found it easy to setup, implement, and manage. So easy that I figured it would be nice to have a review of it here to share with all of you.

If one of you has had a good experience with another file server package, feel free to make a contribution to our site by submitting a write up about it, and lets continue the debate over which package is "better" in the "Debating Chamber" chamber section of TSA discussion board.

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 Anonymous on 13. January 2010 - 13:41  (40950)

I can't agree more. Though I've tried setting up the Linux server and struggled until I was purple in the face. Where may I find easy to understand in English information on how to setup a Linux server. Sadly my knowledge on this issue is not good. Thank you.

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 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

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 Anonymous on 27. March 2010 - 3:46  (46272)

I read this thread months ago when looking to install FreeNAS on an old PC to create a music server - it had been sitting in a pile of rubbish for a few years! With RAM and drives from other dumped systems I got the max 384MB RAM and 3x20GB IDE drives.

What I didn't realise is that FreeBSD, which FreeNAS is built on, provides more data security than hardware or software RAID by using the ZFS file system. The main aim of ZFS is to provide security of data while providing various RAID options. It does this by using checksums and copying back good data from the mirror/RAID drives when required.

It proved its worth with some bad sectors and corrupt data on the old disks. ZFS status informed me of the degraded state which was eventually repaired without any data loss.

I've rebuilt the system and got ZFS to import the disk configuration by inspecting the disks - the only problem being minor: that ZFS created it's own labels for what it has found.

I've also swapped out disks to upgrade to a higher capacity and had ZFS synch the data to the newly installed disks. For example, swapping out the first mirrored drive, synching the data, then swapping out the second and synching it again.

As a PC DOS/Windows and Apple user, the FreeNAS learning curve is steeper than many people say because:
- most people who use FreeNAS are familiar with a UNIX variant and the documentation and solutions reflect that
- open software documentation in often disappointing and tends to trail the releases: this is true of FreeNAS
- from bitter experience, some drive configurations cannot be changed without starting again.

Related info:
- Virtually everything I've had to do is done through the FreeNAS GUI - it just took me a while to find some of it.
- FYI, the recommended specs for ZFS are 64-bit processor(s) and 1 or 2GB RAM
- The current version of FreeNAS ZFS is not recommended for production systems but the next will be. However, I've found no bugs/problems with it on either the basic PC - which boots from CD and has ZFS RAID5.2 on the three drives - or an HP Netserver with 6 hotswap SCSI in mirrored and RAID5.1 configurations.
- LINUX, particularly Ubuntu, appears to provide faster performance, more options, and better support so there is a project to provide a LINUX version of FreeNAS (including ZFS).

Mark H

by Anonymous on 5. May 2010 - 18:31  (49147)

Rates like that would definitely encourage a solar transition, but thats another thread :)

Can Windows sefl-awaken if left in sleep mode with a scheduled task? If so, maybe you could schedule up/down times to coincide with your planned usage?

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