Imagery and research

FreeNAS home server

My home server was due to an upgrade - though the ole Compaq had its benefits (quietness), it didn't really work very well with big disks. Also, transfer speed suffered, which is a pain when transferring really big files like raw video.

So it was time for an upgrade. The current system is built from various scrap parts, some new but mostly used stuff. My logic was getting a reasonable system with a very low budget. The fans are new though.

The items currently in use are:
- ASUS TA 551 ATX chassis,
- Nexus Mx-3500 silent psu, 350w,
- Asrock K7vt4ap motherboard,
- AMD Duron 1.8 GHz (running @ 1.7 GHz),
- NetGear GA311 Gigabit card,
- an old passive AGP card, probably an ATI Radeon 32Mb,
- Thermaltake TR2-M3SE heatsink and 21 dB 80 mm fan,
- Two Sunbeam 21 dB 80 mm case fans (one in back and another in front pushing air through the disk stack),
- 768 Mb memory, Hyundai and Kingston,
- Seagate Barracuda 320 Gb ATA 133 disk,
- Maxtor Diamondmax 300 Gb, ATA 133 disk,
- Western Digital 320 Gb, ATA 133 disk,
- a generic CD-ROM drive,
- an old 64 Mb USB 1.0 pen drive,
- The cheapest keyboard I could find (6 euro Labtec).
- And some sound deadening rubber mat from nearby auto parts store, attached to all inner surfaces to reduce vibration.
- There's no monitor attached. For troubleshooting I can hook up the server to my flat screen tv with the DVI connector in the Radeon. Maintenance can be performed with the web interface from another computer.

Hard disks are configured as a software RAID 5 array in FreeNAS. Throughput is pretty good, around 100Mbps. I'm suspecting my iMac that I use for benchmarking is the bottleneck - it seems I could be getting more out of the server. The server is hooked directly to my Apple Airport Extreme 802.11n (w/gigabit) router. The iMac supports n and gigabit as well.

The server is not quiet but it is close enough, especially given the overall quality of the parts. The most noticable source of noise is hard disk hum. This is difficult to fight without attaching the disks with e.g. rubber bands. Didn't want to compromise secure attachment though. Temperature is low, around 37c for motherboard and processor alike.

The box looks like this:

FreeNAS server, first upgrade

In a system where all the components are pretty much worthless, it's difficult to know where to start. I decided on the initial upgrade of the network card.

Bought a NetGear GA311, gigabit PCI card for some 20 euros.

The product is fully supported in FreeNAS (see here).

Initial results are very good. The throughput increases with some 20% in upload. We're approaching 60mbit/s.

Original setup runs at 50 Mbit / sec.

Which is not bad considering we're talking about hardware that's practically garbage.

Upgrading the Ethernet card increases throughput to about 60 mpbs.


home networking with freenas

As any real geek, the biggest domestic problems are always about technology. Either it's not working, it costs too much, or it's taking too much time.

Anyway, ever since changing to a digital camera oh so many years ago, the issue of backing up the home media inventory has been present. I used to do the occasional backups to CDRs, then to DVDRs, and then to USB drives. But as the number of home media computers seems to be growing uncontrollably in our house, I had to do something.

I've built a really too complex home network. It's partially wired but mostly wireless. The current configuration consists of a Zyxel Prestige WLAN router/access point, one Apple Airport Express (serving streamed music to the living room stereo), and one Apple Airport Extreme (gigabit /n-draft), that has a HP Photosmart 7360 hooked to its USB port. On the computer side, there's one Intel iMac, two Acer laptops w/ Vista, one XP laptop, and Nintendo Wii connecting to any of the three wireless access points (both Apples are set to bridge mode). Also, there's a small Lexmark e240n networking laser hooked. And now, finally... a 2000 model Compaq Deskpro EX, with a celeron 600 and 128 MB.

What I've been looking for is a small footprint solution to back up all documents and media files from the laptops and the Mac. Initially I did this to two Lacie USB drives but that only works well with the Mac since the Vista laptops are in different part of the house.

I bought the new Airport Extreme because I figured I'd be able to hook up the USB disks to it and use it for a backup station. But... I'd suggest anyone reading this blog to think about that twice. The main problem is that the AEBS is optimised for streaming. It does this pretty well. But has anyone tried to back up some (and I mean a lot) data to it? Sending over a single DV iMovie project (~5Gig) will take over anything from 2 hours to overnight. Even with the mac hooked up to the gigabit port. This hardly serves its purpose.

I was then considering getting a home friendly NAS drive and placing it in the network in some out of the way place. But reading the CNET reviews made me think twice. It seems all of the consumer priced drives are quite slow, particularly for writing (which is all I'm planning to do). Typical write times for 5G are 20-40 minutes, which is still quite slow.

Finally, I came to the obvious solution. Building a NAS box from leftover and spare parts. I have very little experience from unix. I've set up one Fujitsu E6650 laptop with Ubuntu and lost a few hairs in the process. But I'm glad to say that my experience with FreeNAS ( is very good so far.

I'm using an old Compaq Deskpro EX that has a 600 MHz Celeron and 128 MB memory. It comes in an ugly big box which is very good for a server (the bigness, not the ugliness!). Also, there's only a heatsink for the processor and no fan. This makes for less noise and heat sources. The integrated Intel graphics card is awful in performance, but very good for this purpose: no heatsink, no fan, and does the job.

Having downloaded the freenas image I toasted it, booted the Compaq, and hooked up an old USB 1 memory stick to one of the USB ports. Freenas saves its configuration to the stick, thus making it possible to boot directly from CD. There's no OS on the hard disk. Initial results were absolutely brilliant. It identified all of the hardware correctly. Typing a couple of selections in the interface is all that's needed.

After this the server is ready and you can configure it from a browser. I activated Samba for the Windows computers and AFP for the Mac. Initial test results were quite surprising. I copied the same 5G file over to the server in less than 8 minutes. And we're talking about a 7 year old IDE hard drive, entry level 10/100 ethernet card and really old hardware.

Since the results are so positive, I'm next planning to upgrade the network card to gigabit. Obviously more storage capacity is also needed so the disk must go. Probably a new controller card is coming as well. The freenas site lists cards and chipsets that are compatible with the release. Based on my previous experience in trying to get the Ubuntu laptop go wireless, I'm definately keeping to supported hardware.
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