View Full Version : What to do with your old computer? Cheap NAS

12-01-2006, 10:11 AM
I have been on a storage kick for a few weeks now... so I apologize for not posting more pictures, but I can get a bit compulsive on things like this and the NAS kick has bitten me. To recap my progress, I'll give a brief picture of my journey. I started out just using Windows shares like everyone else. We have several computers in the home/office and they all have some space that is shared where things get stored. Over time, one of them accumulated a few more disks and became our image storage point.

As needs grew, I moved on to a small NAS - SimpleShare from SimpleTech. One IDE drive in a package that is the same size as a USB external drive. These actually work quite well, and you can even attach a USB drive to it and do RAID0 or RAID1. At only 160GB each, I ended up with a bunch of these little guys. I came to realize I needed something bigger and more robust. I recently bought an Infrant ReadyNAS NV+, which has four hot swappable bays capable of up to 750GB each. It has full RAID support and I'm now running RAID5. Its fast, reliable, and has a ton of capability.

I was happy with my storage at that point, but then after reading up on forums about the ReadyNAS, I became introduced to the world of home media streaming. So after I started backing up DVDs and CDs to my NAS, I concluded that I would rapidly fill the thing up. I don't need the full capabilities of a commercial NAS for this stuff because in most cases I have the media and could recreate it if I lost something. So, I'm looking for cheap. I upgraded our home computer over the past weekend and decided to replace its huge tower case with a very small micro-ATX sized case.

So, I'm sitting here with a box full of 160GB drives, a huge tower case, and a couple of old motherboards. Hmmm.... Geeks don't like to see things go to waste. A little research led me to some fairly simple solutions that would let me build a NAS on the cheap. I took my my older motherboard out of storage and put it in the case. I ripped open some of the SimpleTech boxes and mounted 4 x 160GB drives in the case. I got rid of all the cards in the system, except for a 1Gigabit Ethernet card and a video card. I then tried 3 different operating systems.... Ubuntu, FreeNAS, and NASLite 2.

Ubuntu is a pretty robust version of Linux that includes a full graphical interface, office suite, multimedia tools, and more. Most people could probably quite easily replace their gaggle of high dollar Microsoft stuff with this, and its totally free. I downloaded the disk image for it, burned it to CD, set my machine to boot from CD, and within about 10 minutes it was up and running. No command lines, kernel compiles, and such... in fact it was easier than installing Windows XP by a long shot. With the upcoming release of Microsoft's latest version of Windows in January, and the crazy pricing they have given it... I wonder if people will "just say NO" to Windows and move to something like Ubuntu? Anyways, this can do the job... but I was really wanting something that was thinner and just did NAS.

Next I took a look at FreeNAS. This is a very thin NAS OS that is based on a minimal FreeBSD build. FreeBSD is a derivative of Unix. I believe that the Mac OS is somewhat based on the same starting point, but I could be wrong. I downloaded the FreeNAS media, burned a CD, and popped it in and installed it. In a matter of a few minutes it was up and running and I had a NAS. I didn't set it up this way, but it can be configured to run from CD. I installed it on one of my drives, which probably wouldn't be the way you'd want to go since it takes up little space and you then can't use that drive. FreeNAS seems to work fine, but upon further research I found that it is really an early beta... V 0.6xxx and therefore I wouldn't want to use it in production.

So, the next step cost me $29 to get a license of NASLite 2. NASLite is similar in concept to FreeNAS... a thin NAS OS based on FreeBSD. By it being commercial, there is a little more documentation and support behind it. My understanding is that FreeNAS is kind of a one man show. So, I bought it, downloaded the image, and booted it up. They sell it in several versions. I bought the V2 CD version. It can also be run from a USB key if your machine supports that. The toughest thing was for me to find a floppy diskette. If you run from CD, it uses the floppy to store its configuration file. After a half hour of digging, I found one at the bottom of my son's desk!

Installation is pretty easy, but a little more geeky than Ubuntu. The documentation is pretty excellent though... so you get stepped through it. Activation was kind of tricky. They send you a license code when you buy it. After you input this, you then need to "unlock" it. To do that, you have to navigate to the NASLite box using a browser, and locate the Unlock icon, click on it, and retrive the unlock key. I am not sure why they do all of this, but I'm sure it is to help keep illegal copies from happening.

Once I was all unlocked, you need to setup your network. This is primarily entering an IP address and submask. It doesn't seem to support DHCP, so you need to enter it manually. I just picked an IP address that was higher than anything DHCP will ever dish out on my network. The submask I needed to adjust as well. They recommend not entering a gateway so that it can't reach the outside world. NASLite is does not have user/group security... none. So, you don't want this box being exposed to the internet. Everything you load on this box will be accessible from anyone. Your only choice for the shares is to make them R/W or R/O. Since I intend to use it primarily as media storage and backup... this is preferred for me anyways.

After the network is configured, the last step is to configure the disks. This involves formatting them, and then rebooting so they get mounted. I tried getting it to recognize my onboard RAID array. No mas. They have a very long list of RAID hardware that they support, and if its not on that list, then it won't work. I found out that the onboard RAID on the Abit KT7 RAID motherboard is not really true RAID (no RAID5 support for example). You can pick up some pretty powerful IDE RAID cards that support from 4-8 drives for $100-150 on Ebay, so I'm working on that now. In the mean time, I just configured the machine with the 4 x160GB drives, each on their on IDE channel. It also wouldn't recognize my cheap IDE card that I was using in this PC... but both motherboards I tried with it worked fine and the KT7 has 4 IDE channels so thats the one I'm using now. Since it boots from CD, there is no OS on the drives at all... so they are all available for storage.

Once I was all built, I tried accessing the shares from a Windows XP box. I could see them in browse mode, but each time I tried to access the box it failed saying I didn't have the authority to access it. I floundered around with this situation for quite a while. Then after one failed attempt to change something, the box got shutdown improperly and when I booted it back up it went through a lengthy disk check. This took about 10 minutes, after which I could then see the shares fine. I'm not sure what was going on there, but I am guessing I did something in the wrong order.

From what I can tell, although I didn't do any benchmarks, this thing is very fast. I ran Ghost this morning on one of our home computers and did a full backup of the C:\. I had a problem with that machine when I tried to back it up after building it, because it wanted a userid/password in order to access my ReadyNAS box. I don't have user level security turned on, so it kept failing. Since NASLite has no user level security, it worked! Great. Well, it took less than 10 minutes to do a full backup of that machine... which ended up being a 25GB compressed file. I also copied an 8.5GB DVD backup to one of the shares, and that was comparible to ReadyNAS times.


Here is my summarization of these three approaches to a cheap NAS. Each OS has its advantages and disadvantages. If you have an old box laying around and want to fool around with it, the best approach is to try FreeNAS. In about a half hour you can fully go through the process and figure out if this is for you. Then, if it really floats your boat, you can add a RAID card ir you like. I don't recommend trying software RAID with any of these solutions.



* Full Linux build with GUI, Office, Browser, Email, Multimedia, etc.
* Very easy to operate
* Free
* Built-in Samba (for Windows shares)
* User/Group security
* User support forum

* Requires hard drive installation
* Requires monitor, keyboard, and mouse
* Not intended as a NAS appliance
* Longer installation and loading time



* Dedicated NAS appliance
* Free
* Easiest installation
* Can run from CD
* Doesn't require keyboard, mouse, and monitor
* User support forum

* Early beta (although many people do use it)
* Limited development staff (primarily one person)



* Dedicated NAS appliance
* Easy installation
* Can run from CD
* Doesn't require keyboard, mouse, and monitor
* Commercial supported product
* Excellent documentation
* User support forum

* Not Free - $29 for download of CD bootable version
* No User/Group security
* Must manually configure network IP address
* Requires license/unlock key during installation process
* Can't change share names

If you have interest in this, it is pretty quick and easy to check it out. Check the specific requirements for each, but both FreeNAS and NASLite will run in pretty minimal hardware. So, you can take a pretty old box and slap a couple of drives in it and give it a shot. In fact, you could test it in just about anything, as long as you are OK with formatting the drive and losing the data on it. I'd start with FreeNAS to see if you like this approach, then go to NASLite if you really intend to use it in production.

12-01-2006, 10:52 AM
wow... just wow... will be reading this over a few times from home... sounds like a pretty kick @$$ storage solution...

12-01-2006, 11:09 AM
Basically if you have an old computer, you can play with this with FreeNAS and nothing else. Then you can decide if you'd like to go further with it.

12-01-2006, 12:02 PM
all of my old comuters has Small hard drives.. I didn't keep up with that as i changed over..

12-01-2006, 01:36 PM
Interesting about the NAS only distros - I'll have to look into that. I've still got 3 or 4 old boxes kicking around the basement. Nice comparison, though Mike. And, yes, OS-X is BSD - the OS layer, called Darwin, is a custom version of 4.4BSD.

Another Linux distro that's pretty robust and fairly user friendly is Mandriva. This is what I've been using for years (was known as Mandrake Linux up until a couple years ago). And I don't think any of the modern mainstream distros make you manually compile the kernel or any modules - it's all a GUI install, all point, click & change CDs.

Just found this Linux NAS distro that looks pretty sweet.


I may give it a whirl tonight. Got a dual P-III 450MHz machine and a few SCSI drives just waiting for something to do.

12-01-2006, 04:33 PM
Openfiler is more robust than FreeNAS or NASLite. It is, however, much more of a traditional install process which means that the non-geeks are probably not going to get through it. I'm on the fence that I could probably do it, but the time commitment to get there would be beyond what I wanted to invest. Since I'm really looking for a cheap and fast basic setup to hold multimedia files and workstation backups, they are perfect for me. I'm going to save my ReadyNAS for my image library and business documents which I can't lose.

The beauty of the FreeNAS/NASLite approach is that they are designed to run off CD/Flash... so no hard drive space taken... and to run "lights out"... so no keyboard/mouse/monitor is needed once its built. With both of them, you can maintain them remotely with a browser on another workstation.

12-05-2006, 10:32 PM
Well, after a week of fooling with NASLite, it seems to be doing the trick. I am still running it with 4 IDE drives as separate shares. I'm using it to RIP my DVD collection to at the moment. Using AnyDVD and DVDClone together, I can RIP a full DVD to the NASLite box in about 20 minutes, door to door. That's pretty peppy.

I've decided that I will take this a little further, so I successfully won a RAID card for it tonight on Ebay. I got a 3Ware 7500-8 8 Port IDE RAID board that will do RAID0, 1, 5, or JBOD... more info here... http://www.ebabble.net/html/7500-8.html . This is about the only 8 port RAID card available, and it is a great performer... but expensive to buy new. Each drive has its own dedicated port, unlike the traditional method of daisy chaining 2 drives per port on standard IDE channels. This eliminates the problem of a faulty cable or channel taking out 2 drives at once and killing the array.

I have a bunch of 160GB drives from all my SimpleTech drives, so I'm going to use this board to run a big RAID array of them. Here's the one glitch that I need to research a little more, and falls in the "get what you pay for" annoyance. While my Infrant ReadyNAS NV+ box will send me an email if anything goes wrong, and also flash an indicator light on the hot swappable bay that fails, and give an indication on the status panel on the front... the NASLite doesn't tell you anything about a potential failure of an array. Should a drive fail in normal use, it would beep to tell you something's wrong. But, a hardware RAID array looks to NASLite like a single drive... and with one drive failing, it is still going to work as normal. From what I understand, the 3Ware board will log some an error in the NASLite log that there is a problem, but if you aren't checking the log you could be out of luck. With RAID5, if you lose one drive, you are golden.... but lose two drives and you lose everything. Since what I'm using it for isn't mission critical, this isn't a big problem... but hopefully they'll fix this in future releases. I just need to watch the log once a week or so. This is fairly easy to do and can be checked with a browser right from the Windows share.

I'll update on progress next week when I get the RAID board and install it. I should be able to just slap it in and hook all the IDE cables to it, and away we go. NASLite has the driver for it already built-in.

12-05-2006, 10:43 PM
From what I understand, the 3Ware board will log some an error in the NASLite log that there is a problem, but if you aren't checking the log you could be out of luck. With RAID5, if you lose one drive, you are golden.... but lose two drives and you lose everything. Since what I'm using it for isn't mission critical, this isn't a big problem... but hopefully they'll fix this in future releases. I just need to watch the log once a week or so. This is fairly easy to do and can be checked with a browser right from the Windows share.
Since it's a stripped down version of Linux, you may want to see if it has cron installed. If it does, it can run a script at a certian time of day that searches the logs, and if it finds anything it'll email you. Very easy to do, but it needs the cron package installed, and for efficiencies sake, they may have stripped that out.

12-06-2006, 08:56 AM
I wouldn't begin to know how to see if chron is installed, or if it wasn't how to install it. I doubt that its possible, because ReadyNAS is booted from CD, then unpacked and run from a virtual disk in RAM. Configuration is stored on a diskette. From discussion in the forum, I think they are planning to add something that would let you configure it to check the logs for certain text and set off the alarm. I don't think they have plans to introduce any emailing options. Remember this is a stripped down NAS... not even any options to secure the shares. If it becomes a problem, I'll probably look at going to Ubuntu. I don't think it will. I do know that one user reported in their forum that he was using this RAID card, had a drive failure that was reported in the logs, and successfully replaced the failing drive without losing anything.