Long-time readers of my blog know of my love for Drobo, but the time has come to say goodbye. My old Drobos (and Iomega ix-4) are showing their age and I decided to go in a different direction: I’m building a FreeNAS server. In this article I’ll talk about my thinking behind this move; later posts will talk in more detail about the hardware and software setup.
Bulk Home Storage Revisited
Most people have a good-sized collection of music, movies, and photos to save and share. Although cloud services like Netflix, Spotify, and Apple Music are attractive from a media sharing perspective, I don’t recommend relying on them: They’re simply too capricious with content. You can’t rely on these services to have your favorite movies or music for the long-term.
Even iCloud Music, which purports to mirror your entire iTunes library in the cloud, isn’t reliable for this purpose. Recent reports have revealed bugs in the service leading to data loss, and licensees can remove content on demand. Your best bet is to set up an iTunes server that downloads everything to local storage and saves it there just in case. The same is true of Apple’s Photos application, which I’ve been fighting with for a few months now.
So everyone needs local storage. But how much? And what kind?
A simple external drive sounds like a good idea, but that’s not acceptable either. Drives can crash or be lost, and the common filesystems used by Windows and Mac OS X don’t protect against data corruption. This last point might sound picky, but today’s large hard drives virtually guarantee data corruption!
Considering Home Storage Servers
My advice is to get a home storage server with multiple drives for availability and data integrity checking for reliability. Plus, many home NAS boxes have sharing services built in and can grow with you as you fill up the drives. Drobo was the leader in this space, but Synology and QNAP make great devices too. Familiar storage brands like Western Digital and Seagate also have multi-drive home storage servers on the market.
All of these devices are fairly user-friendly, but all are somewhat expensive and pretty darn slow. And those sharing services are pretty limited too: Devices that boast iTunes compatibility usually run Firefly Media Server, an open-source application that hasn’t been updated in 8 years as of this writing! Most people would be better served by adding a “home server” Mac Mini running the latest Mac OS X and iTunes versions and storing data on the home storage server of their choice.
If you only need a few terabytes of storage, there are good 2-drive options under $300 or so (diskless). But if you need more than that, the prices rise rapidly. Today’s 5-drive Drobo 5N sells for $550; the comparable QNAP TS-563 costs about the same, while the impressive Synology DS1515 is almost $700. Going for 6 or even 8 drives, quick CPUs, and sufficient memory quickly brings you over the $1,000 mark.
The FreeNAS Alternative
FreeNAS has emerged as a compelling alternative home NAS operating system thanks to a simple installer, full-featured GUI, and availability of the same add-on components used in those other devices. You can trick out a FreeNAS install with Samba (for SMB/CIFS sharing), Firefly (for iTunes), Netatalk (for AFP shares), Transmission (BitTorrent client), Plex (media server), and more.
Like my favorite router, pfSense, FreeNAS is built on FreeBSD and runs on Intel x86 computers. This means that you can run it on whatever you have lying around the house. But you probably shouldn’t do that, since both systems work best with special hardware: pfSense needs lots of Ethernet ports and FreeNAS needs copious hard drive (SATA) connections. You can add PCIe cards for both, but there’s more to it than that.
Storage systems must never lose data, and that’s trickier than it sounds. A grotty old PC might not be as reliable as you think, crashing at inopportune moments or even silently losing data in RAM. And your old power supply might not like a 24×7 job powering half a dozen or more hard disk drives! Most serious FreeNAS users build a storage server for it with new, enterprise-grade components.
Another option is an integrated FreeNAS server. Also like pfSense, FreeNAS is supported by a hardware company (iXsystems) that can supply an integrated, turn-key server. The $1k FreeNAS Mini and the $1350 FreeNAS Mini XL are really excellent boxes, with server-grade components and tidy packaging. But $1k buys an awful lot of nice hardware these days…
Build or Buy?
It’s always been true in the PC world that one could build a system for less money than buying an integrated machine. And it’s similarly true that value-priced computers often have limited specifications or low-rent components. But most people still choose to buy a complete system rather than build their own.
Even as components have commoditized and standardized, building a home NAS is still pretty daunting for the average person. With hundreds of motherboards, CPUs, cases, and power supplies on the market, it’s hard to know which is best. Happily, the thriving FreeNAS community is there to help.
Chief among the recommendations of FreeNAS enthusiasts is to use high-quality motherboards, ECC memory, and multi-core CPUs. They are particularly fond of the Supermicro server motherboards, which include out-of-band management over Ethernet (so-called IPMI) as well as many SATA ports, ECC support, quality Intel Ethernet chips, and so on. Another great FreeNAS board is the ASRock Rack Atom boards used by iXsystems.
Everyone should keep a local backup of their music, movies, photos, and other important data. I strongly recommend using a multi-drive NAS system with data integrity checking and availability features like RAID, along with an un-plugged backup on a removable drive. If you need more capacity, consider an integrated bring-your-own-drive system from Drobo, QNAP, or Synology, or build or buy a FreeNAS system.
In my case, being a storage nerd with a lot of data, I decided to build a FreeNAS server. I had considered going with a QNAP or FreeNAS Mini but the amount of capacity I need (thanks to Tech Field Day video archives) meant I would be spending well over $1,000 for those boxes. My current archive relies on two Drobos and an old Iomega ix-4. These put the fear of abandon-ware in me, since all have gone years without an update and can’t really be updated. A PC server will run FreeNAS today and could be updated with other software in the future.
Here’s my entire FreeNAS series so far:
Note: I’ve linked to Amazon for these products and used my Associates ID so I will make some money if you click through and buy something. I don’t really make money this way (I have a real job) but it’s nice to offset the cost of gear this way. I bought everything from NewEgg rather than Amazon, but their associates program isn’t as good.