At its most basic, network attached storage, or NAS, is a great way to share files on your local network. But it’s also a perfect solution for backing up your computers, streaming media across your home network, or even torrenting files to a central server. If you have an ageing computer lying around, you can turn it into a NAS for for free with the open-source FreeNAS operating system. Here’s how.First, we’ll take a closer look at what exactly a NAS is and does, then jump into how to set it up. If you want to skip the first part, you can skip straight to the setup section.
What Is Network Attached Storage?
A network attached storage box is a computer on your network specifically designed to store files. Any computer on the network can access files on a NAS, which makes them great for bigger households, and they’re also nice for when you don’t want to store a bunch of external drives on your desk.
Unlike regular file servers, NAS units are usually built for a specific purpose, like backing up your data or streaming media to other machines. They’re also usually quite low power and low cost, and they don’t require a monitor, mouse or keyboard – once you’ve installed the software, you can configure every aspect of your NAS from a web browser on your other computers.
You can find pre-made NAS units for as low as a couple of hundred bucks, and they usually come with their own software. However, if you have an old computer lying around, you can actually turn it into a NAS for free with the aptly named FreeNAS software. It doesn’t need much in terms or resources; any old computer will probably do. Alternatively, you can buy or build a very cheap nettop that fits the specifications of what you want to do.
You could even strip down a PogoPlug and install FreeNAS on it. The bottom line is, there’s no need to go out and buy a pre-built NAS when you can make one yourself with great, free, open source software and hardware you already have lying around. Heck, if you’ve got the money, you’re better off spending on it on an extra hard drive than you are an entirely new machine.
Here, we’ll show you how to set up FreeNAS on the computer of your choice, connect it to your other computers as if it were directly attached to them, and show you a few simple examples of how you could use it for backup, iTunes music streaming, or video streaming to a home theatre PC. Photo by Andrew Currie.
Note: FreeNAS recently released a new version (version 8.0), but we don’t think it’s quite ready for prime time yet. It’s still missing a lot of the features that make FreeNAS great, so we’re going to use the now-legacy version 7 of FreeNAS.
You can install FreeNAS on a ton of different systems using a number of different methods, but here are the things you’ll need for our method:
- A PC with a minimum of 192MB RAM to act as your NAS. It will also need a bootable CD drive in it from which we can install FreeNAS onto one of its hard drives.
- The FreeNAS live CD, available here (more details on that below).
- A network with DHCP reservations. This isn’t required, but it’s definitely preferred. If you don’t have this, managing your NAS can get pretty annoying, since its IP address will change whenever you reboot it (as will your other computers’). You can also use a network with static IPs if you prefer.
FreeNAS is actually designed to run on a flash drive or compact flash card rather than one of the drives in your computer, but since many computers (especially older ones, like the one you might recycle into a NAS) don’t support booting from USB, we’re going to install FreeNAS to the hard drive for simplicity. If your computer supports booting from USB, you can actually use the live CD to install FreeNAS to a 2GB flash drive and run FreeNAS from that flash drive instead, keeping it plugged into your NAS at all times.
To install FreeNAS, you’ll need the FreeNAS live CD. Head to this page and click on the latest stable build of FreeNAS 7. Download the live CD image that applies to you – that is, if your NAS has a 64-bit capable processor in it, grab the amd64 version. If not (or if you aren’t sure), grab the i386 version. Burn it to disc using something like IMGBurn for Windows or Burn for Mac, and stick it into a computer (any computer, it doesn’t matter if it’s your NAS or not).
Head over to your NAS box and boot up from the live CD. It’ll take awhile to boot up, but once you get to the FreeNAS menu, pick option 9: “Install/Upgrade to hard drive/flash device”. Pick option 2 on the next screen, “Install embedded OS on HDD/Flash/USB + DATA + SWAP partition” (if you’re installing on a flash drive, you can pick option 1 instead). Pick your CD drive and hard drive from the lists it throws at you, and say no to a SWAP partition (unless your computer has less than a few gigs of RAM, in which case it might be a good idea to create a SWAP partition that’s twice the size of the RAM in your machine). It will format your drive for you with the UFS file system, and install FreeNAS to a small partition at the beginning of the drive.
Remove the live CD and boot up your computer. You should boot into your new FreeNAS installation, and come up with the same menu the Live CD gave you. This time, pick option 1, “Assign Interfaces”. Pick your ethernet port from the list (there’s probably only one option), then pick “none, Finish and exit” on the next page. Next, pick option 2, “Set LAN IP Address”. Using DHCP should be fine, unless you’re using static IPs, in which case you can hit “no” and assign it an address yourself.
When you’re done with all the network configuration, it should spit out an IP address for you. This is how you’ll access the web interface to configure everything on your NAS, so make a note of it and head over to your desktop computer. You can now unhook the keyboard and monitor from your NAS; you won’t need them anymore.
Sharing Your FreeNAS Drive with a Desktop Computer
One of the coolest features of FreeNAS is the ability to download torrents without the help of another computer. FreeNAS has a version of Transmission built right in that can watch folders for torrents and download them – you’ll never have to worry about keeping your main computer on, logged in, or avoid rebooting it. Your NAS can download all those torrents for you.
To set up BitTorrent support, open up FreeNAS’ web configuration and go to Services > BitTorrent. Click the Enable checkbox on the right hand side, and specify a Download Directory. This is where your completed torrents will go. Most of the other settings are fine, though I like to require encryption on the people to whom I connect, so you can tweak that setting if you want. If you want to set up a Watch Directory, that’s probably a good idea too – that way, you can drop torrent files right into a specific folder on your NAS and it will immediately start downloading them. Hit Save when you’re done.
The last thing you’ll need to do is probably change your NAS’ DNS servers, otherwise it won’t be able to connect to the internet. Head to System > General and change the DNS servers to your ISPs, or, if you don’t know them, you can just use Google’s (126.96.36.199 and 188.8.131.52) since they’re easy to remember. Hit Save when you’re done.
When you start downloading a torrent, you can monitor it from a web interface by going to 192.168.1.10:9091, replacing my IP address with your NAS’, of course. That way you can keep an eye on how far your torrents are coming along from any computer on your network.
These are just a few of the many things you can do with FreeNAS, so be sure to check out FreeNAS’ web page for more info (as well as the Legacy Wiki, since the legacy version has even more features). Got a NAS setup in your home that you think is pretty awesome? Tell us about it in the comments.