Now that I have a couple of home made file servers it's time to play around with some NAS software. While this is far from a comprehensive run down, just more like a quick assessment of the OS and the GUI that it operates on. The NAS programs are mostly designed to boot without a keyboard monitor or mouse and be managed from a web based browser window.
Also for the most part the free solutions are based on FreeBSD Unix or Linux which are two platforms I have played around with over the years. FreeBSD has a reputation for being rock solid stable and lightning fast. Linux of course is the backbone of many, many a server and while you may run Windows or Mac at home the internet is built and ran off of FreeBSD and Linux.
Following your selection of basic OS then your next basic consideration is what kind of file system do you want to operate? The FreeBSD solutions can use (and some Linux solutions too) the ZFS file system. ZFS file systems are used in enterprise level equipment due to their stability and error checking and self repair capability. Although very reliable, the caveat with this is it requires a little more knowledge to operate and maintain. Enterprise level protection requires an enterprise level technician. That being said anyone can do it and if you can build your own file server you probably have the skills to put in the time to read the documentation and learn the file systems and how to take care of them.
Another popular file system is BTRFS which has similar attributes. Yet another file system is the simple Linux ext4 file system which doesn't have all those fancy bells and whistles but has been around for years and is quite stable. If all you are doing is using your file server to back up your files maybe a simple Linux distribution with ext4 is just what the doctor ordered.
So now we've barely scratched the surface on OS's and file systems it's time to start looking at some of the various distributions out there. Rather than deploy them on the actual file server and muddle through them I like to take a quick look at them on a virtual machine. Generally I can get a good assessment of whether I like them or not in a matter of minutes and virtualization is the way to go. Also some of these offerings have Demo modes on their websites. You don't even need to install the OS on your own virtual machine, just play around with their demo mode to get a feel for the OS and see if it is something you feel comfortable with.
And like most things you need to have some basic idea of what your needs are. These are some of mine.
- Obviously the ability to serve files across the network
- The ability to run various media server services
- Stability and reliability
- Ease of operation
Okay. On to virtualization.....I use a program on my Mac called VirtualBox and while I won't get into the finer points of installation of each OS suffice to say about a million guides exist on the internet to install each one into a virtual environment. As you can see below I've installed OpenMediaVault, Rockstor, and NAS4Free.
Also in a real world environment I have installed FreeNAS and OpenMediaVault. There are quite a few other distributions but the 4 that I have listed here seem to rise to the top of most NAS software searches. Here's a super quick rundown of each.
FreeNAS - Most popular, most enterprise features. FreeBSD based. ZFS file system.
NAS4Free - A fork of FreeNAS, FreeBSD based. ZFS file system
Rockstor - CentOS based. BTRFS file system. REQUIRES PAYMENT FOR LATEST UPDATES (Boo)
OpenMediaVault - Debian Linux based. Ext4 file system support. Latest beta does not yet support AFP (Apple Time Machine) backups. Stable version does.
Now, how about my impressions.........?
Easiest to use - OpenMediaVault
Most powerful - FreeNAS
Slickest GUI interface - Rockstor
Best platform for add ons / plugins - OpenMediaVault (and FreeNAS)
Most reliable place to put your files - FreeNAS
Requires the most CPU and memory - FreeNAS
Works on older hardware best - OpenMediaVault
Worst user interface - NAS4Free
Costs money for latest subscription updates - Rockstor
My overall choice: FreeNAS for bleeding edge hardware, and OpenMediaVault for lower hardware requirements. I run both.
I like Rockstor and I like it a lot but the pay subscription thing to me is a deal breaker. That being said you DON'T have to pay it and you can still run Rockstor, you just won't get the latest updates. If I had a real enterprise solution reason to run Rockstor I'd pay the price. But I don't, I'm just a guy at home playing around with file and media servers.
I just couldn't get the hang of NAS4Free. I'm sure it's great but I wasn't comfortable under the hood. I found the GUI very confusing, especially trying to set up shares. Yes, I'm sure I could figure it out but I used it just long enough to realize I didn't like it and for running FreeBSD and ZFS file system.......well then I'll just run FreeNAS
OpenMediaVault was a breeze for me to set up and it is very intuitive but there is no easy way to save and restore your configuration. Also it isn't as friendly as far as running off an SSD or USB stick. It can be done but you need another plugin to reduce writes to the flash drive. No biggie but the documentation is slim on this one. I liked the feel of OpenMediaVault, adding plugins was a snap, and configuring things was easy. It has that familiar Debian Linux feel to it, even in their GUI representation. I'm at home here.
I was a little jealous that Rockstor seemed to have a Logitechmediaserver plugin enabled which is something I'm heavily invested in around my home. I have all manner of LMS and clients around the house for playing music. Then I remembered OpenMediaVault IS DEBIAN LINUX. Duh. Running these two commands in a shell fixed that real quick.
wget logitechmediaserver_7.9.0~1472937447_amd64.deb (the latest nightly as of this writing)
dpkg -i logitechmediaserver_7.9.0~1472937447_amd64.deb
And next thing you know I was staring at this........The login screen for LogitechMediaServer. I load some music up here on my file server and I can stream to anywhere.
FreeNAS is the king of all of them however the hardware requirements are more stringent. You need a decent CPU, you need ECC memory, you need to know how to manage a ZFS pool. The learning curve is steeper than OpenMediaVault but once you figure things out you realize you are running a real enterprise level file server and things just feel safer. Safe, stable, and secure is what all this is about anyway, right?
I think they all will work and each OS has a place for certain typed systems but if you barely can pronounce or spell the words "file server" I think OpenMediaServer is where you want to be.