A couple of weeks ago, I looked over the different storage options available. I found that Network Attached Storage (NAS) has become increasingly popular–with all major vendors offering a NAS appliance somewhere within their storage product lines.

So what is the difference between a fileserver with DAS and a NAS storage appliance? Very simply put, while a NAS appliance does run its own operating system and the necessary software to enable network administrators to configure and control the device–that’s it; there is no option to add custom functionality. The NAS appliance concentrates on doing one thing and doing it as well as possible.

Most NAS appliances will set up disks with some form of RAID (chosen either for speed or integrity) and be capable of serving files via multiple protocols like CIFS (SMB/Windows) and NFS (UNIX). While poking around the VMware Web site, I stumbled over the ‘Ultimate Virtual Appliance Challenge’; there are some very stimulating appliances listed like Trellis NAS Bridge (helps to bridge disjoined NAS sources), Sieve Firewall, and FreeNAS. Out of these, FreeNAS drew most of my attention–I’m not sure whether that’s because of the quality of the NAS or the word Free!

FreeNAS is a small and free operating system based on FreeBSD, which includes only the functions and features required from a NAS appliance. The entire system can be installed on a 32-MB CF card, USB key, or internal hard disk. Minimum system requirements are 96 MB of RAM on any PC-x86 platform. Although no specific hardware specs are listed, I would guess that they are the same as those of FreeBSD 6.

The major features of FreeNAS are:


·       Filesystem: UFS, FAT32, EXT2/EXT3, NTFS (limited read-only)

·       Protocol: CIFS (samba) , FTP, NFS, SSH, RSYNC and AFP

·       Hard drive: ATA/SATA, SCSI, USB and Firewire

·       GPT/EFI partitioning for hard drive bigger than 2TB

·       Networks cards: All supported by FreeBSD 6 (including wireless card!)

·       Boot from USB key

·       Hardware RAID cards: All supported by FreeBSD 6

·       Software RAID 0, 1 and 5

·      Management of the groups and the users (Local User authentication and Microsoft Domain)

Disks can either be configured as standalones, to use software RAID (1/0/5) or RAID provided by a hardware controller. Once the basic configuration has been applied (select an IP address and network adaptor), all further configuration can be carried out from the Web GUI. While the interface of this control panel is basic in design, it really is a good example of KIS (keep it simple). All of the required controls are provided, allowing disks to be mounted, shares to be created, protocols to be enabled, and diagnostic logs to be viewed.

In the coming week, I aim to install FreeNAS and see exactly what it can do. While this is an interesting project, I wonder how many businesses would be willing to entrust their data to a free, community-built storage system. Regardless of whether or not the system is reliable in theory, is the lack of commercial support and liability just too much to overlook when considering that the system hosts business critical data? I’d be interested to hear people’s comments.