NAS Decision

yeah, it’s another boring post on the NAS saga. Who knows, maybe someone reading this will actually learn something useful.

I’ve decided to stick with FreeNAS. I spent the last few days thinking that FreeNAS was about to turn into another linux/unix nightmare. Anyone who has tried to run a linux system will know what I’m talking about. It’s when you get a system up and running fast and free, then you realize that there is 1 more functionality that you want and it takes a week of delving into obscure binaries and tarballs trying to figure out how to compile source code for your installation. My particular issue at the time was getting remote ftp to work with FreeNAS. While ftp has its drawbacks (mainly to do with security), it’s a well-established method for transferring files remotely. I was having a lot of problems logging into the FreeNAS ftp server remotely. With no solution in sight, I switched over to WHS to get more familiar with it.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, WHS looks pretty slick and the install went well. The next thing I wanted to do was set it up for remote control (RDP) and file server. WHS comes with a method for setting up webspace and I presume that anyone that logs into the webspace will have access to media files. I say “presume” because I never actually got it to work. What should have been simple was in fact quite difficult. I was having all sorts of problems configuring WHS for remote use. And then it hit me: Telus, my ISP, must be blocking ports! I checked into this and quickly found it to be the case. For those not familiar with what I’m talking about, here’s the scoop. When computer tries to enter into a network, it does this by going through a port. You can also think of it as a door or portal. In fact, all network communications are transferred long ports, both in and out. For security reasons, a network transfer (communication) is usually always allowed to leave through a port but firewalls and other things prevent transfer into a network through certain ports. A simple example is when you browse the www, your computer sends requests out of your home network via port 80. Since outbound communication isn’t blocked, your request via port 80 is sent and the end result is that you get to browse the web. Another example is that when you want to transfer a file to an ftp, your request is sent via port 21. Again, outbound transfers aren’t blocked and everything is fine. My problem is that I am in effect setting up my network as a server. This means that when I’m remote and want to use ftp the situation is reversed. The remote computer sends an ftp request over port 21. My network is now receiving that request on port 21. Two things happen now. First, most firewalls block inbound ports. In simple terms you can turn this off and that’s what I did (using port forwarding). The second thing that can happen is that your ISP can block the port, and this is what Telus does. They block a lot of ports including 80, 21, 110, etc….

So people cannot ftp into my NAS, the WHS remote control function doesn’t work (it operates over port 80), blah blah blah. At this point a lot of the WHS functionality I wanted was sort of dead in the water. Another problem I had was that if I enabled a VPN client on a home computer I wasn’t able to connect to the WHS. As far as I can tell, WHS tries to hog all of the network communications so that when the vpn is connected, WHS loses some control and has a brainfart. There is one nice workaround for the remote media aspect of WHS and the problems I was having. I could install Webguide4 which will serve media remotely using ports that aren’t blocked. But I can also install Webguide4 on my vista machine and it can do the same thing while reading files from the NAS. It doesn’t have to be integrated with WHS.

The path forward was clear. First I configured the FreeNAS ftp to use a different non-blocked port. This worked right away and hopefully telus doesn’t block it later. Secondly, I can run Webguide4 on the Vista machine for the same remote media streaming capabilities of WHS. Thirdly, I use NTI BackupNow to manage my backups. I’ve owned and used Backupnow for a few years and it already has functions in it to backup to a remote FTP! This means I can backup remotely to my webspace for critical offsite storage (photos, important documents, etc). Lastly I’ll ditch WHS and stick with FreeNAS.

I might actually toy with WHS for a bit more just to learn more on what it’s really all about. I’m sure there are still some cool things that I haven’t seen yet.