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iXsystems FreeNAS Mini NAS Review

iXsystems' FreeNAS Mini incorporates enterprise features, an advanced file system and a flash cache to deliver superior performance in its price range.

Software Features

Network-attached storage systems are composed of hardware and software. Both vary from one manufacturer to the next, but we find the software portion differentiates these products more. Many of the big names in NAS like Thecus, QNAP, Synology, LaCie and Netgear primarily use Linux for the base software. Western Digital and Seagate (now owner of LaCie) also have Linux-based systems. Some of the companies also ship a small number of products using Windows Storage Server as well. For the most part, it's a Linux world though. Most of us using NAS products in our homes or small- to medium-sized businesses know little about Linux. Fortunately, you don't really need to. The interface is easy to understand, even coming from a Windows mindset.

FreeNAS is based on FreeBSD and uses the OpenZFS files system. The underlying software is Unix-like. The BSD portion comes from Berkeley Software Distribution, the group that released the software in 1993. FreeBSD is still updated even today. Drivers and security-focused updates are incorporated into the system with each build.

If Linux is a fringe group operating outside of the mainstream, then FreeBSD would include that segment's radicals. If you require something outside of a compiled operating system, then prepare to dive down the rabbit hole. Help is available, though. As with any group filled with enthusiasts, there is no shortage of power users ready to steer you in the right direction, or in this case help you figure out how to run a command.

iXsystems takes all of unfamiliarity out of the FreeBSD-based FreeNAS operating system, although it rests just under the surface. For the most part, the OS looks like any other NAS GUI, aside from a few key differences.

The largest hang-up I've had with the system is setting up permissions. To be honest, it took quite a while to figure it out. Now that I understand what the system is asking for, and how to tell it what I need, it's a piece of cake. Some of the frustration has to do with terminology. This isn't a Windows world where you can right-click, share a folder with everyone and hit OK.  

iXsystems takes steps to lessen the learning curve. The FreeNAS Mini includes a training course that covers administration, which you'd normally have to pay $350 for. All FreeNAS users can take advantage of a free Intro to FreeNAS course as well. The free session runs daily, and the administration class runs once a month.

If you wish to just jump in and use your FreeNAS Mini, the system also has a wizard to help you through the setup process. This feature is fairly new. It wasn't included in the software when I first worked with FreeNAS last year. Since then, I've built my own FreeNAS server with 40 drives and dual Xeon CPUs.

That leads me right into the ZFS file system, its features and what makes it so attractive. To start, the system can run RAIDZ, which is sort of like RAID5. RAIDZ2 is like traditional RAID 6. But unlike hardware RAID, you can run RAIDZ2 with three parity drives. The FreeNAS Mini only has four 3.5" storage bays so triple redundancy isn't a good choice. RAID10 is possible, as is striping (RAID 0).

Features List

  • Web interface with optional SSL encryption
  • Localized into over 20 languages
  • Plug-in architecture
  • Performance graphing
  • Email log and reporting notification
  • Downloadable configuration file and encryption keys
  • OpenZFS v5000 file system with feature flags
  • Theoretical storage limit of 16 exabytes
  • File system snapshotting and replication
  • Six levels of file system compression, including lz4 and gzip
  • Disk encryption with GELI and AESNI hardware acceleration
  • Disk deduplication
  • S.M.A.R.T. disk diagnostics
  • UFS2, NTFS, FAT32 and EXT2/3 read support for data import
  • CIFS, AFP, NFS, iSCSI, SSH, FTP/TFTP protocols
  • LDAP and Active Directory client support with Windows ACLs
  • Apple Time Machine support
  • rsync replication
  • Link aggregation and failover
  • VLAN networking
  • Dynamic DNS client
  • Remote syslogd forwarding
  • SNMP monitoring
  • UPS (uninterruptible power supply) support
  • iozone, netperf, OpenVPN, tmux and other utilities

Most of the features are fairly standard on NAS products, though there are a few that stand out. Compression and deduplication (often called dedupe) are really attractive if you have a lot of repeating data and files that are easily compressed. Each share has independent settings, so you can pick and choose when, where and how much compression each pool receives. 

FreeNAS also has a third-party plug-in system that expands as development grows. Here is a list with some of the more popular plug-ins.

Plug-in List

  • Bacula network backup server
  • BitTorrent Sync distributed peer-to-peer file syncing application
  • CouchPotato movie downloader
  • Crashplan backup system
  • CrucibleWDS Windows Deployment Solution
  • Firefly Media Server
  • Gamez automated downloader for video games
  • HTPC-Manager graphical HTPC software manager
  • LazyLibrarian eBook downloader
  • Maraschino XBMC HTPC web interface
  • MediaBrowser media center
  • MineOS Minecraft server
  • Mylar automated comic book downloader
  • Owncloud personal cloud server
  • Plex Media Server component 
  • s3cmd Amazon S3 backup utility
  • Sabnzbd binary newsreader with Headphones audio download support
  • Sickbeard PVR for newsgroup users
  • Subsonic (media server)
  • Syncthing file synchronization utility
  • transmission BitTorrent client
  • XDM eXtendable Download Manager