One of the most important tasks an administrator has is to set up and maintain storage resources and let users share files across the network. Network Attached Storage (NAS), a hardware/software system designed specifically for network storage, has made the traditional file server storage model all but obsolete. FreeNAS, a NAS server based on FreeBSD, makes implementing NAS simple.
With FreeNAS, you can share files among the Windows, Mac OS, Linux, and Unix machines on your network. What's more, FreeNAS provides incremental backups and supports LDAP user authentication, among its many features.
FreeNAS 8, released in May, marks a shift in the way the software operates. With older releases, you could store data on the same drive or partition where FreeNAS was installed. In the latest release, FreeNAS uses a running image, which takes over the entire target disk, regardless of its size. FreeNAS requires at least 2GB for installation, and during installation it creates two partitions. One partition holds the current installation, and the other is used to store newer FreeNAS releases, which are again running images. The availability of all running image makes it easier to upgrade to a newer image, or downgrade to an older FreeNAS release. Even though the partitions hold multiple images, you can only run one FreeNAS version at a time.
Because a running image takes over the entire target disk, you can't use the hard disk on which the program is stored to also store data. The project's download page recommends that you install FreeNAS to a compact or USB flash drive. Since the installation requires only 2GB, a dedicated thumb drive will suffice, and you can use the hard disks connected to the storage server to store data.
Because of the change in architecture, you can't upgrade to FreeNAS 8 from older releases. You must install FreeNAS 8 afresh, and the project provides no means to import configuration settings from older versions.
The new release includes many more interesting features, such as extended ZFS support, which provides additional features like snapshot backups, thin provisioning, and quotas. Other features include LDAP and Active Directory authentication, which lets you access users and groups anywhere a user or group is defined, a new Django-based graphical web interface to configure FreeNAS, and more.
FreeNAS installation is a breeze. Once it's installed, on bootup, FreeNAS drops you to a text console that allows you to configure the network interfaces and DNS, provide static routes, and perform other operations.
The FreeNAS console - click to see full-size
Of the six configuration options provided on the text console, you don't have to necessarily configure any, depending on your environment and use scenario. For instance, link aggregation combines multiple network connections in parallel; you may not want or need to do this.
At the bottom of the text console is an address that you can use to access the web interface – something like http://192.168.2.6/. The web interface allows you to quickly and efficiently manage all aspects of FreeNAS, including configuring backups, adding data storage, and more.
If the network address provided doesn't work, or if no address is provided, which could happen if your network cards aren't properly configured or detected, you must configure the network interfaces yourself. You can also do this if you wish to provide a custom address to your FreeNAS interface instead of using the default address FreeNAS acquires via DHCP. That procedure is simple enough; all you have to do is choose not to use DHCP, pick IPv4 or IPv6, and provide an IP address.
Once you know the server's address, you can type it in to a browser on any machine on the network and log in with the default username (admin) and password (freenas), which you should change as soon as you log in. To do so, click Account -> My Account on the left sidebar. From here you can change the admin password and define a new admin user if you like.
Once you have your network settings the way you want them, you can create users and groups with only a few mouse clicks. You need to have defined users before you share the data volumes, in order to properly set up access privileges.
If you have an LDAP server running to let you access user and group information that's already set up elsewhere on your network, you can configure LDAP on FreeNAS. Your users can then authenticate to the LDAP server to gain access to the data stored on the FreeNAS system.
Since the primary reason for using FreeNAS is to share data, the next step is to set up the storage disks. You need to add your disks as FreeNAS volumes - click to see full-size
After defining permissions for accessing a new volume, you need to create shares, such as CIFS shares or NFS shares, depending on the operating system running on the machines on your network. Note however that you shouldn't define different share methods against the same volume. The different shares use different types of file locking methods, and using multiple share methods on the same volume can result in file corruption, and can also confuse your users.
For each different share, you might have to configure the clients on the network as well. For example, if you create an NFS share, you need to configure the specific machines you want to allow access to NFS shares. This means installing and configuring the nfs-common package to auto-mount the NFS shares on Linux machines on the network. You have to configure your Apple and Windows machines similarly when working with AFP or CIFS shares.
When working with ZFS volumes, you can create periodic incremental backups of your data using rsync. This snapshot feature is available only for ZFS volumes. If you have enough memory available – ZFS support requires at least 6GB RAM – you should always opt for ZFS volumes, given that technology's distinct advantages. While UFS is good and provides decent performance, some useful features of FreeNAS 8, such as quotas, snapshots, and compression, are available only for ZFS.
To set up snapshots, click Storage -> Periodic Snapshot Task -> Add Periodic Snapshot Task. Fill in the details in the dialog such as lifetime and weekday of the backup and you're all set. The lifetime option lets you ensure that each subsequent backup is maintained for a fixed period of time, so, in case of problems, you can roll back to a previous backup. You can also use the Replication Tasks feature to create off-site backups. The backups are stored on the specified volume, and contain only the changes made since the last backup was stored.
Once you have everything running the way you like, you can click System -> Reporting on the left sidebar for a quick review of CPU usage, memory utilization, and system load. FreeNAS's graphical charts can show you hourly, daily, and weekly details on these statistics and more.
FreeNAS reporting - click to see full-size
In addition to continually working on the documentation for FreeNAS 8, the FreeNAS team produces instructional videos to help users understand the software's features and how to best configure FreeNAS to make the most of them. So far, the channel on YouTube has uploaded eight videos covering installation, basic configuration, and overview of volumes, shares, Active Directory, and more.
You can also troll the active forum boards for solutions to common problems, discover creative uses others have found for FreeNAS, and learn how to best configure FreeNAS in different ways without the pain of trying it all for yourself.
iXsystems, which sponsors FreeNAS, also provides commercial support.
FreeNAS is ideal for smaller organizations or departments that want to create a repository for sharing documents of all kinds and set up a common, easily accessible data pool at low operational costs. With its LDAP support, FreeNAS also caters to large organizations with hundreds of users all on different operating systems, and integrates easily into their network infrastructures. It's configurable and expandable, and provides efficient and secure centralized data access.
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