I had been contemplating and researching the purchase of a dedicated Network Attached Storage (NAS) for a long time. Initially, I considered a few different options; an entry level unit like a Synology DiskStation, a small server like the HP Gen 8 Microserver or Dell T20 and installing the disks or even buying the individual components and building the unit myself.

However, I’m pretty useless with hardware and as a NAS should be high quality, reliable and solid, I decided to purchase a ready made unit.

I decided I wanted something that could run FreeNAS with ZFS rather than some proprietary GUI and I found a lot of helpful advice on the FreeNAS forums.

My main requirements were basic and standard for a home user:

  • Automated reliable backup of photographs, music, DVD’s, home videos and documents.
  • Ability to run Plex Media Server (2-4 concurrent users with transcoding). This requirement eliminates a lot of the cheaper NAS units with slow processors.
  • Potential to perform backups to cloud storage (Amazon Glacier).

IXsystems sell ready made FreeNAS units but they are relatively expensive and I would have to pay shipping to the UK so I started to look for a UK supplier.

After procrastinating, delaying, repeatedly shelving then resurrecting the idea and trying to justify the cost, not for the first time, my wife tipped me over the edge. She dropped her laptop. Nothing unusual about that. She’d dropped it before and I paid a man with a soldering iron to replace the power supply jack.

This time, she’d broken it completely so it was (almost) cheaper to replace the laptop than fix it. Like many personal users, my backup strategy wasn’t exactly non-existent but certainly sub-optimal. I had photos burned to miscellaneous CD’s, I had various photo albums uploaded to Flickr and Google. Obviously, I had all my work data backed up (CrashPlan at work, external USB drive at home). My entire music collection (ripped to lossless FLAC) was also backed up three times. As for the wife’s laptop, well, I had an three month old backup from the last time I restored the laptop coupled with her important documents safely backed up on a USB stick. Which was missing.

I could have probably re-assembled and recovered 98% of everything that was crucial and written off the gaps but for one, important, irritating factor. My wife is studying for a course and she had very recent notes, jottings and drafts of essays on her laptop. Inevitably, none of these were backed up anywhere.

I gave her her 5 year old workhorse laptop back, got her email working, restored her Firefox bookmarks and reassured her I would retrieve last night’s draft of her essay, err, shortly.

I had already had to pay computer repairman £50 just to tell me the laptop was beyond economic repair and now my misery was compounded as I had to shell out another £99 for ‘data recovery’. I knew this simply meant hooking up the disk drive to another computer and pressing ‘Copy’ but that’s the price you pay for being a idiotic cobbler with holes in his shoes.

Thankfully, he managed to retrieve everything - the media library I already had as well as the important documents for the wife.

This episode gave me the impetus and justification to go ahead and purchase a NAS and get a proper backup strategy in place.

I decided to purchase a Mini FreeNAS from a UK company called Server Case who offered pre-built NAS units meeting all the recommended hardware specifications together with the latest version of FreeNAS (9.10) installed. The basic model came with 4 disk bays and 8GB of ECC RAM so I configured a system with 4 x 3TB WD Red disks and upgraded the memory to 16GB.

The technical support from Server Case was excellent and helped me customise the system and answered all my newbie questions fully and promptly. Each unit is assembled to order and the hardware stress tested but even so, the package was delivered within three days.

I unpacked the large, well packed, cardboard box and although I had measured the dimensions, I was immediately impressed with size and appearance of the unit, the modern, stylish black case and the build quality which seemed very professional and solid.

I powered the unit up and heard the disks spin up and blue lights come on. You are supposed to hook up a monitor during installation but I didn’t have a VGA cable handy so I just plugged it into the router and determined the IP address so I could login to the FreeNAS Administration interface and configure the system.

I had already decided to configure the four disks in a RAID-Z2 configuration which meant two redundant disks giving me usable space of 6.1TB. As the sum total of everything I currently own is just over 1TB, this was more than adequate and hopefully future proof.

I found the FreeNAS Web admin interface easy to use and I quickly setup NFS shares and got clients working on my various Linux laptops. I also enabled ssh so I could login remotely to access the FreeBSD command line.

FreeNAS includes a number of plugins for popular packages including Plex but I decided to create a jail manually and install it which worked fine.

Then I configured periodic SMART disk tests to check the integrity of the disks and ZFS filesystem as well as a regular backup of the FreeNAS configuration database.

I migrated all my data simply by rsync’ing to the NFS filesystems over my wireless network. With hindsight, this was not the quickest way to do it - a wired connection directly into the router would have been much quicker but it chugged away, was resumable and did the job.

I then degraded the FreeNAS performance still further by moving the NAS out of the bedroom, away from the router and into a spare bedroom using TP-Link Powerline adapters to simulate a wired connection. [ I relocated the NAS as it was quiet but hummed slightly in our bedroom and the air ventilation wasn’t great as it was rather cramped sitting adjacent to the router. ]

Inevitably, I then spent a lot of time playing with my new toy. I experimented with all the available plugins, installed a load of software and I learned a little about FreeBSD and jail management.

For the backups, I decided on a pretty simple strategy. I created hourly cron jobs which executed on the FreeNAS server and pulled files to the FreeNAS using rsync (but didn’t sync deleted files). If a client was unavailable, the rsync was skipped.

Then I created ZFS snapshots (hourly snapshots retained for 24 hours, daily snapshots retained for a week, weekly snaps retained for a month, monthly snaps retained for a year).

This was adequate but the spectre of my wife losing 59 minutes of work on her essay still haunted me so I installed DropBox to perform real-time backups to the cloud (aka someone else’s server) and after looking at many options installed a wonderful open source backup utility called Syncthing in another dedicated jail.

Syncthing is similar to dropbox but uses a notifier utility to detect changes on the filesystem which trigger an efficient, incremental backup when changes are made rather than polling regularly. Syncthing also supports multiple clients (N-way replication) and can also perform one-way sync (master-slave) which is what I required.

In conclusion, I am very pleased with my purchase and FreeNAS setup now. There’s something pleasing about having a home server hidden, out of sight, always on, with an uptime of 67 days 17 hours and 3 minutes.