Network Attached Storage (NAS) for real people!

Warning: This is a geeky post, prompted by photography-related storage issues.

Being into Photography, I have relatively hefty storage requirements when compared to your average PC user. I don’t really need speed, just space and security. I have one 500GB external hard disk and a full backup copy of my photos on another internal drive (plugged in via USB). But I’ve run into a problem… I’m nearly out of space. And while having two copies is great, it’s tough to keep them in sync – as in it is hassle, so I don’t do it as often as I should!

I have had a stack of old IDE hard drives sitting here for the past few years and I’ve been plaguing a friend of mine (that’s you Niall) to let me know if he comes across a multi drive IDE caddy in his travels. Last Thursday, Niall suggested that I just plug them into a PC. An inspired suggestion, so simple. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before.

Anyway, I decided that I’d like some support for a RAID configuration (down the road) and a UPnP server for streaming media over the network to watch on TV. I didn’t want to go down the Windows route as I find Windows network shares to be slow and often flaky. After a little digging this week, I found that there are a few solutions all of which  looked too good to be true, one of which was an Open Source NAS Server called “FreeNAS”. FreeNAS offers absolutely everything I wanted – basic Network Attached Storage functionality and a built in UPnP server.

Basically, it FreeNAS allows a computer to act like a Hard Drive sitting on a network (along with lots of other things I’m not going to go into here).

I had access to an old Dell Optiplex GX620, Pentium 4 1.8Ghz machine with 512MB RAM and a 20GB HD – this machine won’t set the world alight, but it is absolutely ideal for use as a NAS server. You can pick up a machine with this spec on Adverts or Done Deal for about €30 – and that’s being generous. Just make sure you check the FreeNAS hardware compatibility list to save yourself any headaches.

Before physically installing any drives, I decided to install FreeNAS and play with it for a while just to see if it would do what I need. I won’t go through the installation steps – you’ll figure it out in about five minutes if you have a look at the links at the bottom of this post. The installation itself took about five minutes and it took another ten minutes to mount and share the 20GB drive (already in the machine) and set up the UPnP server via the web interface.

Does it work? Yes, like a dream. So far, it’s fast and reliable.  I can stream to my iPhone and other devices around the house as well as have a central file share. Now, my setup so far is very basic, but FreeNAS supports (software) RAID and JBOD, so I can add extra drives at will. For the moment, I’m going to bung in all of my IDE disks which should give me about 700GB of breathing space for the next few weeks. But I’m definitely ordering a SATA/RAID controller and 4 x 2TB disks in a RAID 5 configuration (I’m not concerned with speed). That will give me the storage and security I’ll need over the next few years.

I would encourage people to try other free NAS servers (and  be sure to let me know how you get on) – I was going to, but I’ve struck gold with FreeNAS.

-= D =-

Update 11/03/2011:
I can verify that FreeNAS plays well with the iPhone 3GS, Snow Leopard, XP and Windows 7 – absolutely no issues.

Some light reading/viewing material:

Guide to Configuring FreeNAS
FreeNAS Tutorial for Windows Users

Step by Step – How to make a FreeNAS box
Setting up a UPnP Server in FreeNAS
FreeNAS Site

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