Home File Server Using FreeNAS 8

posted by David Goodlad

Many people buy commercial consumer NAS enclosures to store their files. I wanted something with a bit more flexibilty, but on a similar budget. I put together a FreeNAS 8-based NAS for about $600 (AUD) plus hard drives and thought I'd share the details!


The parts for this server were researched and purchased in December 2010. My reasoning for the different parts varies, but follows two simple design goals:

  1. Storage First: maximize storage capacity
  2. Silence is Golden: a computer in a home living space shouldn't be noisy

The final parts list ended up like this:

Part Model Price
Case Fractal Design Define R3 $145
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-890GPA-UD3H $160
Power Supply Antec TruePower 750W $144
CPU AMD Phenom II X2 555 (3.2GHz dual-core) $94
RAM 4 GB Kingston ValueRAM (2x2GB) 1333MHz DDR3 $90
SAS Controllers 2x DELL SAS 5 PCIe - see this forum post $30
HDDs 8x 1TB Seagate 7200rpm $544

note: I sourced all of these parts, except for the SAS controllers, at a local parts store in Melbourne, Australia in December 2010. The prices listed are in AUD, and are what I paid at that time.

The case was the most difficult piece of the puzzle to find, but was absolutely key in making the rest of the build possible. The Define R3 has excellent noise properties thanks to sound-deadening insulation on the side and top panels and silicon-grommeted hard drive mounts. It also sports eight 3.5" drive bays, individually accessible from the side. They aren't quite as nice as hot-swappable bays, but this is not a high-availability server -- I can afford to bring the machine down for a short time to swap out a disk.

The motherboard was chosen mainly for its two PCIe x16 slots, to support the two SAS controllers. The CPU and RAM were simply the reasonably-priced choices available at the time.


Notes about the SAS controllers

The SAS controllers are a bit tricky. For 10 USD each, they are an incredible bargain for a card based on the well-known LSI 1068 chipset. However, they use the now-uncommon SFF-8484 connector to attach to your drives (or to a backplane if that's what you've got).

Finding SFF-8484 to 4x SATA fanout cables on ebay is easy; identifying the orientation of these cables before you buy is hard. In fact, finding any straightforward information about these cables is difficult unless you're involved in enterprise hardware. I finally found a guide to identify HOST and TARGET SFF-8484 fanout cables which was very useful.

In case the guide ever disappears, the key take-away is that to connect a SAS controller to four SATA HDDs, you need a HOST SFF-8484 cable. To identify such a cable, lay it out flat and locate the notches (or 'keys') on both the SFF-8484 and SATA connectors. If they are on the same side of the cable, you have a HOST cable.

Software Installation

FreeNAS is designed to be installed on small flash-based media, eg: Compact Flash card or USB stick. I happened to have an old 8GB USB stick lying around, but could just as easily have gone and picked one up for less than $20.

Imaging the USB stick

Instead of downloading and burning an ISO cd image, then using it to install onto the flash drive, it's much easier to download an image of a pre-installed system that can be copied directly onto the flash drive. FreeNAS distributes three different files for each release; if you're following along, you'll want the one named like FreeNAS-8.0.1-BETA2-amd64-Full_Install.xz (note the 'Full_Install' bit).

I used Keka.app to decompress the image on my OSX-based machine. On many modern linux distributions, you can probably use the native xz utility instead. I then inserted my USB key and imaged it with the decompressed file:

$ diskutil list
   #:                       TYPE NAME             SIZE       IDENTIFIER
   0:      GUID_partition_scheme                 *121.3 GB   disk0
   1:                        EFI                  209.7 MB   disk0s1
   2:          Apple_CoreStorage                  120.5 GB   disk0s2
   3:                 Apple_Boot Recovery HD      650.0 MB   disk0s3
   #:                       TYPE NAME             SIZE       IDENTIFIER
   0:                  Apple_HFS Macintosh HD    *120.2 GB   disk1
   #:                       TYPE NAME             SIZE       IDENTIFIER
   0:      GUID_partition_scheme                 *4.1 GB     disk2
   1:                        EFI                  209.7 MB   disk2s1
   2:       Microsoft Basic Data KINGSTON         3.9 GB     disk2s2

The first two disks are my Macbook Air's internal SSD; /dev/disk2 is my Kingston USB drive.

$ diskutil unmountDisk /dev/disk2
Unmount of all volumes on disk2 was successful

$ dd if=Downloads/FreeNAS-8.0.1-BETA2-amd64-Full_Install of=/dev/disk2 bs=5k
195312+1 records in
195312+1 records out
1000000000 bytes transferred in 2061.441201 secs (485098 bytes/sec)

This may take a while if your drive is very slow like mine. dd will not output anything at all until it's done, so don't panic! The bs=5k block size parameter is copied from the FreeNAS documentation; it may be okay to increase that value to speed up the process, but I was unsure of the impact so didn't mess with it.

First boot, and configuration

I booted up the server with the freshly-imaged USB stick inserted in one of the rear USB ports, and once I'd configured the BIOS to boot from USB first it jumped straight into the FreeBSD bootloader.

Once the system had finished booting, a small menu of options was presented on the console. Since the default network configuration (DHCP) was fine for my LAN, I didn't need to do anything here. At the bottom of the screen, the machine's IP address was listed - enough for me to grab my laptop and load up the FreeNAS web interface.

Storage setup

I decided to configure a single ZFS pool (zpool) striped across a pair of 4-drive RAID-Z1 arrays (vdevs). This gives me the flexibility to upgrade 4 drives at a time, and remains faster than a single RAID-Z or traditional RAID-5 array.

There are rumors around the internet that RAID-Z arrays perform at their best with the number of data disks being a power of two, but these were never substantiated in the articles about larger enterprise installations. If I'd wanted believe this theory, I could have setup a 6-drive RAID-Z2 array, or bought another pair of drives and had 2 5-drive RAID-Z arrays. In my case, it wasn't critical to squeeze every ounce of performance out of the system, so I didn't worry about it.

The method to create the single zpool with two vdevs is not immediately obvious. First, create a 'Volume' configured as if you were only going to use one vdev. In this case, I created a Volume named vault using the first 4 drives, choosing 'ZFS' for the filesystem and RAID-Z for the group type. To add a second vdev, you simply repeat the same volume creation process, using the same volume name. I went through the create volume screen again, using vault as the volume name and choosing the remaining 4 drives for ZFS RAID-Z, and ended up with a 5.9TB volume.

The above is equivalent to the following command-line:

$ zpool create vault raidz /dev/da0 /dev/da1 /dev/da2 /dev/da3
$ zpool add vault raidz /dev/da4 /dev/da5 /dev/da6 /dev/da7

Sharing files

Configuring ZFS datasets and sharing them is straightforward, but very specific to what one needs to do with the file server. Check out the FreeNAS docs for more info.


I've got a few more things that I want to add to this machine.

Time Machine backups

Version 2.1 of netatalk, the AFP service daemon, that comes with FreeNAS 8 is not new enough to support hack-less Time Machine backups. You can make it work, but it's ugly and unstable. The FreeBSD ports system doesn't have any of the netatalk-2.2 betas available, so it looks like I'll likely have to write my own.

UPDATE: The most recent version of FreeNAS, 8.0.2-RELEASE, includes an updated version of netatalk. It supports the features required by Lion for out-of-the-box Time Machine support.

SABnzbd, Sick Beard and Couch Potato

I use these tools to acquire video from usenet. I'm considering moving these from my Mac Mini to the file server, but have yet to decide if I'll do so.

UPDATE: I have installed all of these, and they're running nicely. There are a number of people on the FreeNAS forums who have done so and documented their experiences.