Book review: Learning FreeNAS

I’ve been looking at the book Learning FreeNAS by Gary Sims, and trying out FreeNAS in the process. FreeNAS is now at 0.69.1, and is very stable and robust. FreeNAS is based on FreeBSD and thus is rock solid.

Writing a book about FreeNAS (or any Network Attached Storage system) is difficult for several reasons. The most obvious one is that entire books (big books!) have been written about each storage technology: Windows file-sharing (SMB/CIFS), NFS, iSCSI, FTP, backups, and more.

It is difficult to write a good book about NAS as it is not possible to cover all areas in depth – and alternately, it is not good to reduce the book to “click this button; click that button; next enter this data and click that button…” A NAS can make setting up and using a complicated server quite easy – and finding the right balance between describing all of how Samba works and just specifying which buttons to push can be a hard choice to make.

Learning FreeNAS tends slightly towards the simple end: if you discover any serious problems that require command-line knowledge, the book doesn’t really cover more than it must. In my case, I found that installing FreeNAS resulted in the lack of a default route. I had to add the default network route by hand, though the book never discusses this. This is not necessarily a deficiency, but one to be aware of.

One thing that I always look for in books is an in-depth index. These are simple to find: how many pages does the index contain? How many entries does each letter contain? How many entries can be found under U or X? This book contains 6 pages of index, compared to a similarly sized book that has 17 pages – and a smaller font size. As a reference work then, it will be harder to find items that are of interest.

Overall, this is a good book, worth getting. It could have been more in-depth, but as it stands it is still good. There is no comparable book for the only serious competitor in the open source NAS arena, OpenFiler (which is based on Linux).

The book is available from Packt Publishing in print or in a downloadable PDF.

Network Attached Storage (NAS)

Once you hear what a NAS appliance does, you might be tempted to think (as I did) what all the fuss might be about. But there are reasons for a NAS appliance, though a NAS isn’t for everybody.

Network Attached Storage is nothing more than a server with a pile of disks and a dozen different ways to access them. For most intents and purposes, the difference between a File Server of yesteryear and the Network Attached Storage of today is conceptually rather minimal.

NAS typically provides access to files via such methods as Windows shares, NFS, iSCSI, Appleshare and others.

So what does a NAS appliance provide that a NFS server does not? There are several benefits:

  • Special purpose. Since the system is solely for the purpose of serving up files for users, there is no need for any other facilities except those that deal with its specified purpose. Thus, a lot of potentially vulnerable or unreliable code can be removed, and the speed and reliability of the system can be increased. Some systems do not come with a general purpose operating system of any kind, but rather a specially designed operating system for serving files alone.
  • Extensive support. In many cases, since the system is specifically designed for serving up file storage, the innumerable variations of network storage protocols come supported out of the box.
  • Ease of use. With the system designed to serve one purpose – and to provide the customer with the best possible experience – the system is generally made much easier to configure and easier to use than having to configure the varying servers and protocols independently.

There are two different NAS products that are the heavy-weights in the free and open source arena: FreeNAS (freenas.org) and OpenFiler (openfiler.com).

The most obvious difference between these two is their base (and their associated licenses). The base for FreeNAS is FreeBSD, and like FreeBSD, is licensed using the BSD license. However, OpenFiler uses Linux as its base, and is likewise covered by the General Public License version 2.

This week, I’ll focus on FreeNAS with the assistance of a book entitled Learning FreeNAS by Gary Sims and published by Packt Publishing.

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Open Source Network Attached Storage (NAS)

Gary Sims wrote an excellent and in-depth review of FreeNAS (a FreeBSD-based network attached storage system). His article details his experiences with FreeNAS, how it worked, where it (or he) failed, and other tips and tricks that he found as he went.

While FreeNAS appears to be the most popular (at least according to Google!) there are others out there, including OpenFiler (which is Linux-based).

A NAS basically is a dedicated file server that provides many different protocols to the clients and acts as an appliance. In some ways, this is no different than the historical file server – but in these cases, the NAS device is much more a turnkey solution with no other purpose. Many NAS systems support Windows file sharing, Macintosh file sharing, NFS, and a plethora of other protocols – all in order to make files available as much as possible. OpenFiler is one of these.

NAS devices were traditionally contrasted against SANs (storage area networks). The NAS provided a filesystem on the network; the SAN provides a block device on the network. This apparent sharp division of purposes does not exist in reality: some NAS systems also provide SAN resources as well.

Which – FreeNAS or OpenFiler – would I use? Can’t say – OpenFiler caught my eye first, but FreeNAS has the FreeBSD base. I’m liable to try both of them one of these days.