Old desktop computers and laptops don’t need to be scrapped any more. Using a free UNIX-based utility, you can convert them into efficient servers to serve you on your local network. All you need is any working computer without an operating system, a USB pen drive (or a CD/DVD burner and a blank CD) and software downloaded from the Internet.

What is FreeNAS

FreeNAS is a free Open Source Storage Platform based on FreeBSD and supports sharing across Windows, Apple and UNIX systems. It also includes ZFS, which supports high storage capacities and integrates file systems and volume management into a single piece of software. FreeNAS version 8 can be downloaded from ‘www.freenas.org’. FreeNAS can be booted right off a 2GB USB pen drive or a CD and the computer’s internal hard drives can be used as storage drives for your data. You can either choose to have a single internal hard drive or have multiple hard drives configured in RAID to have a large and/or secure network attached storage drive, which can be accessed from the local network. FreeNAS features a bundle of protocols and services, such as CIFS (samba), FTP, NFS, TFTP, AFP, RSYNC, Unison, iSCSI (initiator and target) and UPnP, Software RAID (0,1,5), ZFS, disk encryption, S.M.A.R.T/e-mail monitoring with a WEB configuration interface (from m0n0wall) and a few more.

 

Let's get started

Let us show you how you can get your old computer to run FreeNAS putting in the least effort. Firstly, download the FreeNAS operating system (version 8.0.3) from the home page. You can choose to install a 32-bit version or a 64-bit version, according to your hardware compatibility. The download is available in the form of an ISO file, which can either be burned straight to a blank CD using which you can create the bootable USB pen drive or have it installed on the computer’s internal hard drive. Preferably a bootable pen drive is best suited as it is a live OS and you can use the pen drive on any machine you wish to make a NAS.

Download the 32-bit or 64-bit file from the FreeNAS website.

In order to install the FreeNAS OS on a pen drive without going through the trouble of burning the ISO image to a CD and then creating the bootable pen drive, we shall use another utility, which will be easier and faster. Firstly, extract the files from the ISO image into a folder on your desktop using WinRAR, 7zip or WinZIP. We suggest you download and use 7zip as it will be needed in another step further ahead.

Unzip the necessary files and keep them ready in a common folder.

Unzip the necessary files and keep them ready in a common folder.

What we need from the ISO is the file named ‘FreeNAS_i386_embedded.xz’, if you are using the 32-bit version. If you are using the 64-bit version, it will contain the file ‘FreeNAS_amd64_embedded.xz’. We shall be proceeding with the 32-bit version here and the same procedure can be followed for the 64-bit version. This ‘.XZ’ is an archive and contains the compressed bootable image that we need. Now using 7zip, extract the ‘.XZ’ file to the same folder. The file within should be named ‘FreeNAS_i386_embedded’ (without any extension) and will be approximately 1.95GB in size after extracting.  

Now to prepare the USB pen drive, we need to format it initially. Plug in your 2GB (or higher) pen drive into the USB port and format it using the FAT32 file system. In case you face trouble formatting the pen drive, you can try a low-level format using the utility ‘HP USB Disk Storage Format Tool’. Once the disk is formatted, we will need a utility to transfer the image file you earlier extracted from the ISO file to the USB pen drive. For this, you will need another utility called ‘Physdiskwrite’. You will need to download both the command line and the GUI version of the utility from the URL ‘http://m0n0.ch/wall/physdiskwrite.php’ and unzip them to the same folder on the desktop, which has the FreeNAS image file. The GUI-based utility will be needed for identification of the USB drive and the command-line utility will be used to dump the image on the pen drive.

The GUI utility will highlight the device ID of the storage drives on your PC.

The GUI utility will highlight the device ID of the storage drives on your PC.

Now that all the necessary software has been downloaded and is ready for use, browse to the folder and run the GUI utility ‘PhysGUI.exe’. Make sure your pen drive is inserted in the USB slot before running the utility. The graphical display of the utility will list out the information of the all the storage devices on the system. The utility is in German, but it won’t make a difference for us as the information is in English. After the utility has scanned and listed all the storage drives available, check the column named ‘Device ID’. Your pen drive should be listed there. Note down the device ID of the pen drive.

The command-line utility will need the information of the device ID and then begin writing the image to the pen drive.

The command-line utility will need the information of the device ID and then begin writing the image to the pen drive.

For example, the device ID should look something like this ‘.PHYSICALDRIVE1’. Note down the ID and close the utility. Now start the command prompt and enter into the folder on the desktop where the image file and the physdiskwrite.exe files are stored. Here type the command ‘physdiskwrite –u FreeNAS-i386-embedded’ and press the enter key. The utility will again list out the device IDs on the screen and prompt you to confirm the destination drive’s ID. Enter the number of your USB pen drive. For example, if your device ID was ‘.PHYSICALDRIVE1’, press ‘1’. The utility will then confirm if it should proceed—you can then press ‘Y’ to continue.

FreeNAS will display a boot menu at the initial stage. Press the enter key by default.

FreeNAS will display a boot menu at the initial stage. Press the enter key by default.

Caution: If you accidentally type in the wrong device ID, you can end up destroying the data from another drive instead of the USB pen drive. Make sure you enter the accurate details. The utility will then start writing the image to the pen drive which should take a few minutes depending on the write speed of the pen drive. Once done, you are ready to start your own NAS on the network.

After booting, FreeNAS will highlight the IP address for configuration.

After booting, FreeNAS will highlight the IP address for configuration.

Plug-in the USB pen drive to the USB slot of the computer, which you have decided will be the NAS. Switch on the computer and using the BIOS, set the booting priority to USB and save it. Now your computer should boot from the pen drive and FreeNAS should start loading. The initial booting screen will prompt you with a boot menu from which you could either press ‘1’ or simply Enter. Your FreeNAS will start booting and a few lines will keep scrolling across the screen similar to the booting of a machine loaded with Linux. FreeNAS will be up and ready in a few minutes and you should get a message to either configure the NAS from the console using the command-line interface and also an IP address of the NAS will be displayed. You can enter this IP address in any Internet browser on another machine on the local network and configure the NAS with the graphical user interface.

You may start configuring the NAS using any internet browser from a machine on the local network.

You may start configuring the NAS using any internet browser from a machine on the local network.

Note: if your local network does not have a router or DHCP server, you may need to configure the network card on the NAS itself to assign an IP address to it. After the NAS has obtained an IP address (either static or via a DHCP server) you can proceed to configure it from another machine using the GUI.

Configure the hard drives, create RAID and configure the internal storage.

Configure the hard drives, create RAID and configure the internal storage.

That’s it. Now that the NAS has been setup and ready to be deployed, you need to initially configure the internal storage (either as it is or in RAID), assign shares, create users and workgroups and configure the required servers (FTP, SAMBA, etc). Once done, you can start dumping your data on to the shared folders from the other PCs on the network.

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