Build a NAS Device With an Old PC and Free Software

Friday Jan 4th 2008 by Joseph Moran

Looking for a way to share storage on your network? If you have more time, space and PCs than you do disposable cash, FreeNAS is an excellent — and free — option. We show you how you set it up.

DYI Small Business Storage: Build Your Own NAS Device

If you've ever considered purchasing a NAS (short for network-attached storage) device to add storage to your home or small office network, you may have balked due to the relatively high prices they can command. If you don't have hundreds of dollars to spare on a commercial NAS product, but you do have an old or unused PC lying around, you might consider pressing it into service as a NAS device.

If you have the time and are comfortable with basic network technology, one way to convert that spare PC into a NAS server is with a free utility called FreeNAS. Like many commercial NAS products, FreeNAS is built atop FreeBSD (a compact Unix-based operating system). FreeNAS offers pretty much all the features common in a ready-made NAS device and then some, but best of all, it can run on pretty modest hardware — the main requirements are a system with a minimum of 96 MB of RAM, a bootable CD/DVD drive, and, of course, at least one hard drive (external USB drives are also supported).

There are a few versions of FreeNAS available, but here we'll focus on the basic setup of the LiveCD version. The nice thing about this version is that you don't need to permanently install it onto your system. Instead, you can boot FreeNAS directly off of a CD or DVD — it will run from a RAM drive (using only around 32 MB of memory) and can save its configuration data to either a USB Flash drive or even an old-school floppy disk.

To get FreeNAS, download the most recent version listed under FreeNAS ISO (as of this writing, it was version 0.686b2, dated 11-18-2007). After you've downloaded the approximately 44 MB file, you'll need to create a bootable CD from the ISO image file (as opposed to simply burning the file to a disc). Windows built-in burning tools won't do this for you, but pretty much any commercial burning software such as Nero Burning ROM or Roxio Easy Media Creator will. (If you need it, ISO Recorder is a free utility that works with XP and Vista — you'll find it here.

Before loading FreeNAS, make sure your system's set to boot directly from its CD or DVD drive. You can do that from the system BIOS, which you can access by pressing a key when prompted — usually F2 or Del — right after powering up the system. The exact menu options will vary slightly by system or BIOS vendor, but you're looking for settings that refer to boot order; when you find them, make sure that CD/DVD or optical drive is listed as the first boot device. (If you have any external drives you want to use with your FreeNAS system, you can either connect them now or wait until later.)

Installation and Network Configuration

After you've configured the system's boot order, insert a blank formatted floppy disk (or connect a Flash drive), insert the FreeNAS CD and then reboot your system. FreeNAS will start loading and eventually display a boot menu on a 5-second timer. Leave the default option selected, and within a few seconds a splash page will appear. After a few more moments there will be high-pitched beep, which means FreeNAS is loaded and ready to configure.

After you hear that beep, press ESC to gain access to the Console setup menu. Select option 2, Set LAN IP address, and you'll be prompted about using DHCP for IPv4 and then AutoConfiguration for IPv6. Choose Y in both cases, and after a moment FreeNAS will display the addresses that have been assigned for each. The IPv6 address isn't really important, unless you're running IPv6, but take note of the address listed for IPv4 — this is the address you'll use to access and configure your FreeNAS system.

You can test FreeNAS's network connectivity by returning to the setup menu and then selecting option 5, Ping host. Enter the address of your router, and if you get responses, you'll know your NAS system's link is up. If so, point your browser to the FreeNAS system's IP address, enter admin as the username and freenas as the password, and you'll be granted access to the configuration screen.

Preparing Disks and Creating Shares

There are three basic steps to preparing a disk for use with FreeNAS: identifying it, formatting it and mounting it. Start by going to the Disks menu, selecting Management, and clicking the plus sign button. From the Disk pull-down menu — which will list all disks connected to the system) select one that you want to use, click the Add button and then click Apply changes.

Now go to Disks|Format, select the disk you just added, and click the Format Disk button. (As you'll be warned, this will erase the contents of the disk.) Then go to Disks|Mount Point, click the plus button, specify the drive, type a volume name into the Name field, then click Add. Again, Finally, click the Add Changes when it appears.

Now we need to activate file services and set up a share. Head over to the Services menu and choose CIFS/SMB (this is the protocol used by Windows Networking, a.k.a. Network Neighborhood/Places). Put a check in the Enable box in the upper right and give your server a name in the NetBIOSName field. (You can also change the Workgroup name from the default of WORKGROUP if you use something else.)

Click the Save and Restart button, and then return to the top of the page and click the Shares tab. To create a share, click the plus button, enter a share name and description into the Name and Comment fields, respectively, then point to your newly created volume in the Path field (you can use the ellipse button to browse for it). Click Add and then Apply changes, and you're done. You can make sure your FreeNAS share is visible from an Windows system by or browsing for it within Network Places. (If your system has a software firewall and you can't reach the FreeNAS system, you may need to configure it to allow Windows File and Printer Sharing.)

Wait, There's More

We've only covered a basic configuration of FreeNAS here, but there's a lot more you can do with it. For starters, you can use it to share out multiple drives, including CD or DVDs. Like most commercial NAS products, FreeNAS will let you set up user accounts and rights, or you can have it authenticate users from an existing Windows domain (2000/2003 Active Directory only). You can also enable other network services including UPnP, FTP, NFS (for Linux), or AFP (for older Macs) and set up encrypted volumes or one using (software-based) RAID 0, 1, or 5. For more information on these and other FreeNAS features consult the product manual, which is surprisingly useful (it's available in PDF format from the download page).

Using FreeNAS to build your own NAS server won't necessarily make sense for everyone. As you can see, it requires a bit more configuration effort than a commercial NAS product, so you have to have the time and inclination to play with it and tweak it to your needs. It's also worth nothing that since a PCs is usually much larger than a typical NAS device, it may be harder to tuck a FreeNAS system away somewhere if space is tight. Also, that any PC-based NAS is likely to be nosier and consume more power than than a ready-made NAS (worth keeping in mind considering your NAS device will probably need to run 24/7).

But if you've got more time, space, and equipment than you do cash, FreeNAS is an excellent way to set up effective and inexpensive network storage.

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He's also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he's currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, Fla. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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