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.

NAS x3

What a day. First I had to fix the internet (props out to the Cisco crew, thanks for the help!), then reactor #3 went offline, and to top it off I had to put the kids to bed. In between all of this my Windows Home Server 120 day trial showed up.

Installing WHS is nothing like unRAID and FreeNAS. WHS is the same slow, painful install that we’re all too familiar with on Windows. Whereas with unRAID I plug in a usb flash drive and have a functional NAS within 3 minutes, WHS takes about 45 minutes to install. No surprise there I suppose. The second thing I noticed is that the documentation for WHS sort of sucked. I think it’s all there in the help file but I didn’t see any quick install guides that quickly point out the main topics/tasks required for remote control and other functions. As is typical with Windows, they force some stupid defaults on you. The default password requirements force you to have a complex password which is annoying. I’m not sure how many “home” users really need strong passwords. Isn’t everyone behind a hardware firewall these days? The other thing is that WHS doesn’t clearly tell you the need for matching logins between WHS and networked computers. You sort of find it out when you first try to connect and are denied. That’s about it for the immediate bad stuff.

As for performance, WHS seems pretty good so far. I’ve done some quick benchmarking comparing WHS to FreeNAS and unRAID using my new $15 gigabit NIC. I was able to tranfer files from the windows desktop to WHS at a speed of 22MB/s. The next closest was FreeNAS at about 19MB/s and unRAID the slowest at 18MB/s. This kind of surprised me because unRAID is touted as being a really fast NAS and FreeNAS is supposed to be slower. I wasn’t using any parity or software RAID, and I presume this would have a huge impact on performance. All bets are off if these things are to be considered.

At this point I see no reason to continue with unRAID. It’s two most attractive features to me are its speed and it’s ability to keep adding drives to the array. unRAID doesn’t appear extra fast to me, and I while I think the idea of unRAID’s unique array structure is great I really don’t think I’ll be using it. I’ll be using my two hard drives and don’t anticipate needing any more space for a few years. So now it’s down to WHS and FreeNAS. I think I’ll experiment with FreeNAS for a while. It’s big attractions are that it’s free and it’s not Microsoft. Perhaps those are actually the same thing. I can actually test these two solutions with relative ease right now. If I boot FreeNAS it doesn’t know that WHS exists. If I boot WHS it doesn’t see the FreeNAS drive. I can flip flop between them sans problemos.

NAS update #2

I got FreeNAS up and running without too much work started to transfer some files to the new share I created. The transfer speed was around 9MB/s, which I thought was kind of slow considering that this was through a gigabit lan. I was reading online about speeds and it looks like FreeNAS speeds are quite a bit slower than some other options such as unRAID. unRAID is a linux based NAS where they have a stripped-down free version and a pro pay version. It sounds like unRAID is popular with the HD / AV crowd because its speed allows for the streaming of HD over the network. Another interesting thing about unRAID is that it has it’s own software array/parity scheme which works kind of like RAID 5 but allows you to use different hard drives of various sizes. The drives just keep adding to the array.

I decided to download unRAID and give it a go. Sure enough within 5 minutes I had it up and running too. My test transfers had the same speed as FreeNAS which surprised me. Then I realized that the LAN on the NAS is only 10/100mb/s. I’m going to pick up a gigabit lan card tomorrow and try it again. The other thing I need to decide/finalize is what I want to do with backups. There are many options including:
1. backup data only or OS (windows drive) and data
2. daily incremental backups on separate disk in case of data loss
3. RAID 1 or other mirror/parity for redundancy (but not archival)
4. periodic offsite storage (example, 3 month archival)

Some of the above are best achieved with JBOD or unRAID without redudancy or parity. Some are best achieved with full redundancy or parity. When I think to the past, I’ve used backups primarily in the case that some file or email got lost or maybe corrupted. RAID 1 or parity wouldn’t have helped this. Another thing I wonder about is if I have full recent backups then what does RAID 1 or parity really give me?

Perhaps the best thing would be some type of backup and RAID/parity combination. 1/2 of my data doesn’t need backup but redudancy would be good (I guess backup would work too), while the other half of data might be better suited to some backup and archiving scheme.

I need to really decide if I want RAID or redundancy or not. the other thing I’m looking into is the best way to do offsite backups. I can use a removable harddrive for this, or I can use an online service like Mozys. Another option is to implement my own scheduled incremental backup and upload, where I can upload the data to an offsite server. My current web host only allows 1GB though. However, I found a new web host that offers a lot more: Bluehost. With 1500gb of web space I could easily manage my own offsite/internet backup with FreeNAS, and it wont’ cost any more than my current hosting plan.

Home NAS – network attached storage

Since we have two computers at home and because I’m a bit of a computer geek (or glutton for punishment), I’ve started looking into NAS’s. NAS = network attached storage. The basic idea is that you have a black box with all of your data in it. Every computer in your network sees the NAS as a drive or folder, and therefore each computer can access all of the same files. It’s a great way to share pictures, videos, documents, databases, etc. A person can buy one of these black boxes off the shelf. One of the best ones I could find are the Netgear Readynas products. They are a great all-in-one solution, but prices run from $500 to $1000. Then a friend told me about Windows Home Server. WHS is sort of like a stripped down media center version of Windows Server 2003. It’s primary function is to share and backup files. The software, if you can get it, is $165. Supposedly the OS can only be sold with a computer system but maybe a person can get it by itself. I ordered a 120 day trial for WHS and it’s taking forever to receive it. In the meantime I downloaded FreeNAS. FreeNAS is an open source OS based on FreeBSD. The OS is streamlined to operate as a NAS. Afterall, a NAS is just a small computer that is sharing files from its harddrives. I’m running it off a live CD and a config file is stored on a usb stick. No hard drive required. The computer is an old P4 that I scavenged, but it meets the basic requirements: gigabit LAN and RAID. Within about 2 minutes of starting FreeNAS I was accessing it via a web gui on my desktop pc, it was pretty slick. I haven’t done anything with it yet though, I’m not sure if it’s worth the trouble. I can just imagine how user friendly the backup solution is – set up a cron job with rsync. In some ways WHS and FreeNAS are the same, but I would imagine that ultimately WHS is a lot more useful. For example, WHS has some type of built in feature for sharing/streaming iTunes.

Anyways, I’m liking what I read about WHS but wish the damn disks would get here. WHS has a plugin called Drive Extender and it sort of replaces RAID 1. You can duplicate your shared folders on different drives. The nice thing about this is that you don’t need to add exact duplicate drives. With RAID 1 you get redundancy by having two drives of the same size mirroring each other. From what I can gather about Disk Extender, you can put duplicate shared folders on a separate drive, and the drive can be any size. This is nice because I could incorporate older drives that I have kicking around the house.

From what I can tell so far, FreeNAS is a great way to handle small home office/business file sharing and storage, whereas WHS is better geared towards the home/media user.

It would be great to hear from people that have used either of these products.

Version 2 Media Extenders

I really like the idea of Windows Media Extenders, which are remote boxes that you can use to network/channel your PC media to your television. I don’t know if I would ever get one but the idea is cool.

The part I don’t get is how companies like Linksys think they can be competative with things like their DMA2200 which will sell for about $320. For that kind of money you can buy an Xbox 360 which is the only currently available version 2 media extender. With the Xbox 360 you get the added bonus of having a full-fledged gaming system. Even if you’re not into video games, how can you justify the cost of a Linksys system when the Xbox 360 would appear to have a lot more bang for buck?