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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.
* I need to find a synonym for the word "consider."

FreeNAS
Boasting impressive enterprise features and ZFS, FreeNAS is my current NAS of choice.  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?"

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 - 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 - Mondaiji

    Guest - William Yee

    Limetech Unraid is a commercial distro. Although it offers a trial version, there is no free version at time of writing.

  • Guest - Mike Mckay

    Thank you for taking the time to look into all of this and then share it. Like some of the other posters I have just started to look at building my own NAS after purchasing a ZYXEL325 a while back and only just discovering that it never lets the hard drives power down

    I have 5 microservers lying around 3x1.3Ghz, 1x1.5 and 1x2.2 so I was hoping to use one of those to build a nas as the CPU is still better than most bought NAS box CPUs, it can take 16gb of ram, has half a dozen USB ports, one Esata, VGA and two PCIe slots plus doesn't consume much power compared to desktop PCs and actually looks like a NAS so they seemed to check a lot of boxes

    As I have recently bought a HP ML110 and a Dell T20 when they had irresistible cash back offers (the T20 cost 150 before the £70 cash back) I can free a couple of them up that I had been using as a nettop PC for web and office and one that had been my torrents download machine.

    So that's what I have to play with. I do also have the 8 port SAS hardware raid card that can fit into a Microserver half height slot, but I read that if you use ZFS its best to use software raid as a hardware solution can stop ZFS from doing what its designed to.

    I also know less than nothing about Linux/unix or anything really other than DOS and Windows, so I would prefer something that is an all in one self booting solution rather than having to first learn all about a new OS, then in a decade or so finally being ready to install the NAS software on top of it

    So for me, would that make FreeNAS the best solution? Or am I missing something with any of the others?

    Is there any decent reason not to run ZFS with freenas or which ever you thought was the best choice if it uses it?

    And when you say it needs a "lot" of ram, how much is a lot? Say I had 4x3tb drives or 4x2tb drives what kind of ram would I need to use?

    Hopefully you still check in on this so fingers crossed and thank you in advance

    Mike

  • Guest - Roy

    Hi
    Thank you for this, what about Limetech Unraid?
    Roy

  • Guest - Mondaiji

    Guest - Roy

    Limetech Unraid is a commercial distro. Although it offers a trial version, there is no free version at time of writing.

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