January 28, 2013, 11:13 AM — It takes something different to stand out in the crowded network-attached storage market. How does free, as in free beer and free speech, sound?
That's the premise behind FreeNAS, the open-source storage software that supports every major file-sharing protocol out there. FreeNAS can look like a Windows server or an iSCSI target, among other server types. It's managed by a Web interface that's more intuitive than some commercial storage appliances we've used. And FreeNAS offers the innovative ZFS file system, with built-in integrity checks, flexible and virtually unlimited scalability, and good performance.
In this Clear Choice test, we evaluated FreeNAS on an iX-2212 server supplied by server vendor iXsystems, a major supporter of the FreeNAS project. While iXsystems sells commercially supported TrueNAS systems built on FreeNAS, the company made clear that the software package is free, and can be installed on any PC hardware, 32- or 64-bit.
Installation is fast and straightforward. Once the system is set up, it's managed by either a well-designed Web interface or the command-line interface (CLI). Even allowing for our strong CLI bias, we could achieve virtually every task from the Web UI as well, right down to setting low-level parameters in the FreeBSD operating system on which FreeNAS is based. (For those new to FreeBSD, the default parameters worked fine in our testing; there's no need to change OS parameters, or know anything about FreeBSD, for that matter.)
FreeNAS supports multiple file-sharing protocols, including CIFS, NFS, and iSCSI, making it suitable as a file-sharing device for Windows, Mac, and Unix/Linux clients. And iSCSI support makes FreeNAS a good choice for shared storage of virtual machines. FreeNAS also can act as an FTP and TFTP server, and it supports rsync for backup to and from the appliance. And it can be configured as a backup server for Windows Shadow Copy and Apple Time Machine.
Thanks to its ZFS support, FreeNAS performs "snapshots" of its file systems for local and remote backups, similar to Windows Restore Points. FreeNAS can send snapshots incrementally, reducing backup sizes. Even if all the redundancy features in a FreeNAS system were to fail, the data would still be recoverable by restoring a backed-up snapshot to a new system.