Imagery and research

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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