Need to add some file storage space onto your in-home or small business network? You really need to have a place to store frequent backups. Now it is easier and cheaper than ever before.
FreeNAS is a Live CD that is super easy to install and configure. It supports booting from CD, hard drive, USB, or Compact Flash. The best thing about the FreeNAS software is the price tag: free.
I wish I had known about this program a few months ago. I would have saved several hundred dollars. Instead, I purchased a dedicated network attached server (NAS) device. Today I duplicated that functionality by using an old PC at a total cost of zero. That's right. All I needed was an old PC that was lying unused in the closet plus some fee software. I didn't spend a dime.
I installed FreeNAS onto an old 600-MHz Pentium II PC that once was my primary computer. After downloading the software, it was up and running as a network file server in about twenty minutes. I can now copy files to and from the new NAS from any Windows, Macintosh, or Linux computer. No special software is installed on the other computers. All that is needed on the various computers is normal Windows networking. (All Macintosh and most Linux computers include Windows-compatible networking software at no extra charge.)
FreeNAS is a collection of programs written in Free BSD UNIX. It is very reliable. You download the one ISO file, create a CD-ROM disk, place the CD into your old PC, boot, and then answer a few questions that appear on the screen. Within a few minutes your old PC will be converted into a state-of-the-art network attached storage (NAS) device. You can later remove the keyboard and monitor as they are not used after the initial configuration.
NOTE: Some older PCs require that the keyboard be attached before booting. This is a limitation of the PC's internal BIOS, not of FreeNAS. Newer PCs all seem to have an option to boot without an attached keyboard.
You can download the 19-megabyte FreeNAS ISO file from http://www.freenas.org. A 19-megabyte file is a reasonable download, even on 56K dial-up modem connections.
You then need to burn the file onto CD, specifying that it is an ISO file. Most CD burning programs have the option to create ISO disks. If your CD program does not support the creation of ISO disks, you can download the free ISO Recorder Power Toy for Windows available at http://isorecorder.alexfeinman.com/isorecorder.htm.
The FreeNAS software requires two drives: the first drive contains the program, and the second drive provides storage space for your files. The first drive can be a floppy disk drive, a USB drive (often called a "jump drive"), a Compact Flash device, or a hard drive. I used the PC's floppy drive for the first drive. The second drive is a normal hard drive where all the data is to be stored. My old PC that I am using for FreeNAS has a 30-gigabyte hard drive, but I am about to replace that with a 350-gigabyte drive that I recently purchased.
I inserted the FreeNAS disk into the CD-ROM drive and rebooted. Within a few seconds, the FreeNAS software displayed a rudimentary interface. One of the options is to go to UNIX. Other options are available to reboot the system, reset passwords, and more. To be blunt, this interface isn't very user friendly. There is no help file. Luckily, you don't need to use this interface for more than a few minutes. This is the point where you turn to the user's manual, available at http://www.freenas.org/docs.html. The user's manual explains the required functions in easy-to-read English.
The first thing to do is to configure the network interface, as explained in the user's manual. Then an IP address must be set. Again, this is all explained in the manual and only takes a minute or so. Finally, the PC is rebooted. That will be the last time you need to look at the rudimentary interface.
This is the point where you can disconnect the keyboard and monitor that are connected to the NAS PC. That was fine in my case as my old PC has an intermittent video board: it doesn't always display the color red. Screens can look really bad without red. I was glad to remove the video monitor.
Next, go to any other computer on the network, and open a web browser. Enter a URL of the IP address that you just assigned to the NAS PC. For instance, if you assigned the NAS an IP address of 192.168.0.72, you would type the following into the web browser's address bar: http://192.168.0.72. All further configuration is done from the user-friendly web browser from any Windows, Macintosh, or Linux computer on your network.
The biggest drawback to FreeNAS is the lack of security. The entire shared hard drive is available to everyone on your network. Should you back up a file containing confidential information, everyone else has access to it. There are no user IDs or passwords. That's fine with me as only two of us in the house have access to the network, and I trust the other person implicitly. She already has full access to all my computers. My network also sits behind a rather good hardware firewall, so I am confident that nobody can access it from outside the house.
If I were worried, I would use one of the many backup programs available that also encrypts the files being backed up.
I tested FreeNAS beta test version 0.5.1. The author says that user IDs and passwords and all the other security tools will be added later, before the release of version 1.0. The software is built on top of FreeBSD, an operating system noted for its industrial-strength security features. Once those features are enabled, FreeNAS should become a useful tool for everyone.
After a few hours of use, I am pleased with the FreeNAS software. I set up the attached drive to show as drive N: in my Windows machines, and I can now copy any files to it from any of my computers. I changed my automated backup program to copy all files to drive N: at 1:00 AM every day.
FreeNAS also supports FTP (File Transfer Protocol) and NFS (Network File System) remote access. FTP is an older method of copying files across networks. NFS is used mostly on UNIX machines although occasionally on Windows and Macintosh. It is a method of sharing one disk drive amongst multiple computers.
FTP and NFS on FreeNAS also do not use any security features yet, so I left those features turned off.
If you have an old PC lying around, give FreeNAS a try. You can use an old 200-MHz Pentium II or most anything faster. The old PC obviously needs a network connection. If the PC doesn't' already have one, you can purchase network cards for about $12.00 each at most any computer store or by mail order.
You might want to buy a big new hard drive for the old PC, too. Drives are cheap these days. It would be best to leave the old hard drive in place and then install the new drive as an additional device. Most computer cases have space for a second hard drive, but you will find a few exceptions. Place the PC on your network, insert the FreeNAS CD, and boot with the FreeNAS CD-ROM. A few minutes later, you'll have a network attached storage device up and running.
In short, I am pleased with FreeNAS. It has worked flawlessly for me for more than a week. However, if your security requirements are a bit more rigid than mine, FreeNAS is not the tool for you. You should wait for a newer version that includes UNIX security tools.
FreeNAS may be downloaded directly from http://www.freenas.com