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The Hunt For the Ultimate Free Open Source NAS Distro

My aged Netgear NAS was primed and ready for a relaxing retirement, so I pursued a befitting upgrade.  I briefly considered an out-of-the-box NAS offering from Qnap or Synology, but reconsidered after considering the high price paired with the wimpy CPU & RAM specs.  After considerable consideration I decided to build my own.  An OS-less HP Microserver costs a fraction of what a Qnap NAS does, and this way I wouldn't be married to an over-priced, low-spec proprietary platform.  But what OS to put on it?  My hunt for the ultimate free open source NAS distro began.

I noticed a few themes during my NAS safari:
* Distos based on FreeBSD or OpenSolaris feature ZFS support.  I won't get into it, but believe me when I say that ZFS is an awesome filesystem that frees you from the limitations of other filesystems.
* Distros based on Debian offer easy package updates, which makes sense since Debian distros have an awesome package repository system.
* Active open source projects in general evolve quickly.  For example, FreeNAS used to have no plugins, but they added a web-based plugin system & repository, and now their plugin library is increasing.
* ZFS requires lots of RAM and encryption requires lots of CPU, so consider that when choosing / purchasing / digging through the trash for NAS hardware.
* Linux-based distros are expanding support for BTRFS, which is considered the Linux take on ZFS.
* I need to find a synonym for the word "consider."

FreeNAS
Boasting impressive enterprise features and ZFS, FreeNAS is a superb NAS distro.  This bad boy just keeps getting better and better.

Good
* ZFS support
* encryption support
* can be extended with its plugin and jails systems
* Gorgeous web-based management interface.  I'm in love.  Is it strange to be in love with a web GUI?
* very popular with a large following and frequent updates
* Incredible enterprise storage features make me feel like my home NAS is a datacenter, minus the freezing cold AC and whirring fans.
* The updating process is more automated than it used to be.

Bad
* Many of the features are overkill for home users--especially those looking to build something simple.
* It's not the greatest choice for old, low-spec hardware.  It wants loads of RAM, particularly if you plan to use ZFS.  This is more a ZFS thing than a FreeNAS thing, though.

NAS4Free
NAS4Free is a continuation of a previous version of FreeNAS.  If you're a fan of "legacy" FreeNAS, then NAS4Free is for you.

Good
* ZFS support
* encryption support
* intriguing service offerings like HAST and web server

Bad
* The web-based GUI can be hard to navigate and use at times.  I understand why FreeNAS decided to redesign theirs.
* It's not easy to extend with plugins.  The web GUI package installation system could use refinement.

OpenMediaVault (OMV)
OpenMediaVault is a solid NAS and the brainchild of a former chief FreeNAS developer.  If you don't need enterprise features like ZFS and/or you prefer a Debian-based distro, OMV could be your NAS ticket.  That's 3 acronyms in 1 sentence.  Yeah!

Good
* Debian-based, which means you get frequent package & library updates
* Decent growing library of plugins available that keep home users happy.  I particularly like the antivirus plugin.  Cool!
* very clean, user-friendly web GUI

Bad
* relatively new to the NAS scene
* I couldn't find an easy way (in the web GUI) to backup the configuration.  Bummer...

Nexenta Community Edition
This is a free community version of a commercial storage product.  This might be for you if Solaris is your thing.

Good
* ZFS support
* based on Open Solaris (now called Illumos).
* free version limitations are quite generous (e.g. 18TB of storage) for home use
* based on a commercial product, which can be a good thing for stability and support

Bad
* Community edition is feature-limited and not for commercial installations.
* Web GUI is convoluted and unattractive.
* obnoxious initial configuration wizard
* Unfamiliar (to some like me) underlying OS could make it hard to self-troubleshoot and support.

Openfiler
Like FreeNAS, Openfiler has been around a long time now; but unfortunately its update schedule is something to be desired.  Rumor has it that a project to port it to a more popular Linux platform is in the works, so perhaps we'll witness a comeback someday.

Good
* It's been around for a long time now.
* has a sizable fan-base
* has cool features like clustering and HTTP/DAV server

Bad
* It's based on rPath Linux, so familiarity and hardware driver support can be an issue.
* It's often criticized for its infrequent update schedule, so it's starting to show its age.  Distrowatch lists it as "dormant."

Amahi
Amahi isn't a true NAS distro, and it isn't exactly free as it has a commercial arm surrounding it.  It takes a unique, cloud-like approach, but this approach may not be for everyone.  I'm including it here because someone will inevitably leave a comment that says, "Hey, what about Amahi?"  To be fair, Amahi is a home server for people new to Linux, and not a NAS with enterprise-level aspirations.

Good
* Tons and tons of plugins allow for infinite expansion and customization.
* It's a full-blown home server, so it could work for those moving on from the now defunct Windows Home Server.
* based on well-known distros Fedora & Ubuntu

Bad
* This statement taken from an Amahi email irked me: "IMPORTANT: We do not know of any data loss within our users, however we ask that you do not use this software with critical data or data you would mind losing."  Isn't the whole point of a NAS to store critical data and prevent data loss?
* I don't like all the registration and cloud bullshit I have to jump through to get started, and the term "connected OS" frightens me.  This kind of stuff raises privacy and security flags with me.  What kind of spyware is hiding in it?

Rockstor
Rockstor is rather new to the NAS game, so it's not as far along in development as many of the others.  However, with its CentOS and BTRFS foundations, I'm excited to watch this one come into its own.

Good
* Based on CentOS, a solid and familiar choice
* I adore the "Rock-ons" plugin system and catchy name.
* It uses the BTRFS file system, which like BSD's ZFS includes splendid data integrity and security features like snapshots, pools, checksums, encryption, etc.
* More reasonable hardware requirements than FreeNAS, especially when it comes to RAM
* Clean and simple web GUI

Bad
* BTRFS is still considered experimental by some.
* Not as mature and feature-rich as other NAS distros.  But I'm sure features will be added as development continues.
* The web GUI could use a bit more refinement--help pop-ups, default suggestions, etc.  At times I felt like I was flying blind or thinking, "Where's the rest of it?"

UNRAID
UNRAID is technically a commercial distro, but it includes a generous free trial, and is so affordable that I think it's worth mentioning here.  I've since become an enthusiastic fan of UNRAID, and it is currently my production home NAS of choice.

Good
* Damn, this bad boy is feature-rich.  I've learned that you often get what you pay for, and I'm more than happy to pay for software if it means better features, stability, and support.
* A vibrant and active contributing community surrounds UnRAID, and they're actually nice!  I have yet to see any trolling on their forums.
* BTRFS and encryption support
* The RAID design is similar to RAID4--with a dedicated parity drive.  This has several advantages, including the ability to mix and match different HDDs.

Bad
* BTRFS is still considered experimental by some, but you can use other file systems of course.
* It took me a while to get used to because the approach, design, and terminology is quite different from other NASs I've used.  But I think such is the way of storage, is it not?
* I find myself dropping to command line a bit more often with UNRAID, especially when configuring not-out-of-the-box features.  I'm totally fine with that, but others may not be.  For example, setting up Rclone to backup my data to cloud storage was a more involved process compared with FreeNAS.

Others Worth Mentioning
These aren't self-contained appliance distros, but packages installed on 'nix OSs that NAS-ify them.

Napp-It
This one runs on OmniOS.

OpenAttic
This one runs on a few distros, namely Debian and Ubuntu.

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  • Guest - Nathan

    I wish there was an Opensource nas with a gui like Qnap or synolgy I realy love there interfaces easy clean. However, all the distros iv found use a old school web gui aproach

  • Guest - Mitch

    I am on that quest too, after trying a lot of those NAS mentioned here, I still find them too complex, even some are way over kill and so hard to setup, some of them even failed downloading the installer files upon install. It is very hard to find easy to use software or anything made for, or with linux.

    For now my quest continues! Thanks for the wright up!

  • Guest - Joe

    Guest - Mitch

    Would suggest UnRaid for this use case - there's a youtube channel by spaceinvaderone that's basically complete step by step video tutorial for whatever you want to do with it. What's nice about unRaid is you can leave it as a simple NAS if desired (which it basically is by default once you get the drives formatted and the array configured initially, IE something you should be able to do with waching a couple videos and spending just an hour or less), and then you can gradually add plugins / dockers or use their very slick KVM (virtual machine) interface to dramatically increase the utility of it (IE from simple NAS to sophisticated home server). Can similarly use very low end hardware / just a couple of disks, or brand new Threadrippers and massive buildouts. For example, it's super simple to just add a docker that will make it a Plex / Kodi server, etc. etc. The learning curve to set it up can basically be obviated by just using the video tutorials. The comment about dropping to command line is really only if you're trying to do "fancy" things with it. There's also a recent post / video by Level1Techs (youtube/blog) to show how to add on ZFS array to unRaid (unRaid uses XFS and/or BTRFS) if you're looking for that as your storage array filesystem (advantages of being faster/more bulletproof than the UnRaid array which is more simplistic and slower - mostly so it can also be cheaper, using nonidentical disks, etc). Also, UnRaid handles with a single plugin the ability to hook any fashion of external drive up to it and tie into it easily - or even surface it's shares thru the same UnRaid array. Handy when taking another archive drive and wanting to copy it onto the array or just make it easy to use it over the network. UnRaid also can function as a target for Time Machine for MAC (not all NAS's can). UnRaid support forums are as stated here, awesome and friendly. Very active development because the folks on the forums are actually the ones developing many if not most of the plugins and docker applications they build for the platform. And since it's licensed (one time fee to use it past the trial period), that keeps it being actively developed and upgraded very regularly.

  • Guest - Tomek

    Thanks for the writeup!
    I just wanted to chime in, and tell, that OMV supports ZFS with the help of an extension. I have migrated from FreeNAS and my ZFS volumes moved almost seamlessly.

    On my NAS choice checklist there is need for Docker - I run some home automation and other software, and I feel more comfortable playing with Docker containers than FreeNAS jails.

  • Guest - Jeets Sodhi

    Thanks for the amazing articles. Been reading the IT section of your blog regularly.

    I am migrating away from a self managed Ubuntu based NAS with raid 0 stores and running ownclound in a VM, to a more mature and easy to manage NAS+Personal Cloud solution. Both OpenMediaVault and RockStor seem amazing, as they both run on Linux (and I am relatively handy with Debian/Ubuntu variants, and feel confident that a CentOS based server won't be that much of a learning curve).

    Going to be running this on a server class machine (Dell T320, with a LSI SAS/HDA card and multiple hot-swappable hard drives).

    Do you recommend one more than the other (as in RockStor over OpenMediaValult or vice-versa)??

  • Guest - Mark

    Why is there no mention of FreeNAS "requiring" ECC RAM? And being shunned in the forums if you don't use it? There are article that get into the discussion of HOW and WHY ECC RAM is better than non-ECC RAM, and there is a blurb or two about "RAM under load" or some such phrase, but I can't find ANYTHING that actually cites how FreeNAS puts the RAM on a machine under load and why you absolutely have to have ECC RAM or you're doomed.

    FreeNAS wants server-class hardware and is a terrible choice if you have commodity desktop-class machines that you're looking to repurpose. And, if the RAM issue is all about ZFS, then ANY of the solutions that use ZFS are equally poor choices.

    There are less than a dozen threads that are pointed to on FreeNAS as being from people that suffered data loss because of RAM issues. What's the real story on ECC versus non-ECC RAM?

  • Guest - Bob H

    Guest - Mark

    It isn't specifically FreeNAS but ZFS, because ZFS was designed for professional servers it was designed to entirely trust the computer. When ZFS does verification of data if there is corruption in the RAM it will cause big problems. You can use ZFS without ECC but you have to accept the risks and the community (I am not one) doesn't seem sympathetic to those who have issues.

  • Guest - Fred M

    Guest - Bob H

    It's neither FreeNAS nor ZFS that drives the pseudo-requirement for ECC RAM. Any time that bits flip in RAM without detection or correction, you risk corrupting the running OS, processes, applications, and the data on disk. It doesn't matter if you're running a FreeNAS ZFS RAID or a Windows laptop with a single drive. RAM in modern computers is susceptible to random bit flips due to various sources of noise, most commonly high-energy cosmic rays. Some experts estimate that we can even expect error rates as high as one error per 4GB of RAM per day. If you're lucky, a bit flip will hit something relatively unimportant like a cached image from a website or a part of RAM that's not in use. If you're a bit less lucky, it will cause an application to crash. Less lucky than that is an OS crash. And worst of all is nothing obvious happening but data on disk being corrupted because the bit flip occurred on a buffer that was destined to be written to disk. And it only gets worse in space, which is why the satellites and space probe I worked on had ECC sophistication and fault tolerance that would boggle the mind of the average Earth-bound computer user.

    Sure, the typical company IT guy is just fine putting some consumer-grade system on your desk, with no ECC RAM and no RAID. But ask him how many of the company's servers have no ECC and no RAID storage for critical data.

    My time has value and so does my data, so my primary workstation (that I'm using right now) has ECC RAM. I would not consider building a NAS of any variety that did not have ECC RAM.

  • Guest - William Yee

    Why are there no mentions to UnRaid NAS server in many reviews? I am using UnRaid on my current DIY NAS server and looking to build another 2nd NAS server and am researching the current consensus for the best NAS server distro or just go pure Ubuntu Linux OS and configure things myself as needed. I am wondering why UnRaid is not mentioned in many reviews now. Was something wrong or buggy discovered about it that it is not popular anymore? I'm just jumping back in to research things, so I am not up to speed on what is the best NAS software OS or Distro to go with currently. I will be using a Fractal Node 304 mini ITX case with a ASROCK Intel 1150 motherboard and an Intel I3 or I5 CPU. Probably about 3 large 3TB or higher capacity drives (ultimately 8TB drives probably). Should I just stick with UnRaid or is there better for a Home Server used to archive data and stream video and audio music files from. I do use Plex Server so would have to be able to install Plex too. FreeNAS better than Unraid these days?

  • Guest - Joe

    Guest - William Yee

    Yeah that's frustrating - as stated, it's because it's not completely "free" as in beer - there's a one time license fee. Frustrates me because the community around it is huge and friendly, and they actually are responsible for the majority of the features you can add on around the system. Truly Open Source mindset in that regard, something the UNRaid team fully supports. The fee is not at all unreasonable, and they give you very regular updates / security hole oversight, etc. To be clear it's not for "Enterprise" use, but it's absolutely targeted from beginner to advanced for the home user / tinkerer. And if not used as your sole data backup (nothing should be of course), then it would be fine for SOHO type use as well. The owner is a silicon valley Filesystem Guru who just wanted exactly the type of cheap/easy home tinkerer sort of system, and he's done well with that goal.

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