Building and maintaining a FreeNAS server in my home has been a rewarding experience that continues to provide me with value and an avenue to grow personally and professionally.
It’s an experience generally started with loss, some stability, neglect, some more loss, stress, and then eventually some stability and growth.
I bought my Netgear ReadyNAS NV+ in 2010 after I suffered my very first HDD failure where I lost hours of video footage. Luckily, it was archival video, nothing urgent. The scenario left me yearning to never let it happen again.
I learned all about the available redundancy options for storage and backup, and set my sights on Netgear’s X-RAID feature with their ReadyNAS platform, allowing for 1 of 4 hard drive failures. I thought that would be enough for my budget at the time.
Around 2017, I received a notice that the machine would no longer be supported with software updates. Great. It was bound to happen. On a tight personal budget, I looked for new options but never committed to anything.
A late-Summer 2018 Florida thunderstorm sent my dog into a static-electricity induced panic attack, including heavy panting and a neediness where she was attached to my leg with imaginary heavy-duty Velcro.
Despite the many UPS units around my home, I failed to connect the coaxial cable that carried my broadband internet connection to the UPS. A lightning strike hit a nearby coaxial terminal that fed surrounding apartment buildings their internet. The surge carried itself to my modem which let out a internal thunderclap that also sprinkled its way through two additional WiFi routers, which were also destroyed in the surge.
The last in the chain was my ReadyNAS which was hit too. I was able to power on the device again, and after a file system check, it booted. But no network connectivity. The NIC was fried.
Call to Adventure
After the disappointment faded, action needed to take place. I needed to:
- Get access to my data.
- Find and implement a new solution. I narrowed my options to:
- Buying a more modern ReadyNAS device
- Building a DIY NAS using FreeNAS or other similar software
I had found similar instances of users’ NIC ports getting hit by surges and recoveries possible on the same device and model. It turns out that ReadyNAS’s X-RAID solution is just a Linux-based RAID with some bells and whistles, and there were many ways to retrieve this information. However, this would have required the need to build a separate machine that could connect to all 4 of my drives. Therefore, building a new machine would be the eventual course of action.
Crossing the First Threshold
It turned out that one could purchase a used ReadyNAS of the same model. Finding a version that matched my version was difficult, and often times I waited too long to bid before an auction was purchased from under me. After a few weeks I finally found a compatible version on eBay.
The moment I was able to re-install all my drives, boot, and see my data appear was a million pounds of stress off my shoulders. My data was safe, but I need a new solution to backup my main computer as soon as I could.
While I did have a great experience with ReadyNAS and Netgear products in general, I felt that I needed personal and professional growth, and FreeNAS would be my choice. I’ve built many computers in my life, but this would be the first that was specific to being a server and maintain it.
Land of Adventure
After nearly a month of research and deciding on a budget and components, I chose the following:
- SUPERMICRO MBD-X9SCM-F-O Server Motherboard. This motherboard is now discontinued, which helped get it at a reasonable price.
- Intel Pentium G2140 3.30GHz Processor BX80637G2140. A simple dual-core ECC-compatible processor
- 3x Kingston ValueRAM 4GB 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM ECC Unbuffered DDR3 1333 Server Memory Model KVR1333D3E9S/4G. They say 1GB of RAM for each terabyte of data.
- 4x White Label SATA 6 GB/s 3TB Hard Drives. These White Label drives reduced my price considerably, but as you’ll later learn, it was not the best choice.
- BitFenix No Power Supply MicroATX Tower Case BFC-PHM-300-KKXKK-RP. I thought this would be an excellent low-profile case. Wrong.
- EVGA 450 B3, 80+ Bronze 450W, Fully Modular, EVGA ECO Mode. I simple somewhat eco-friendly power supply.
- 2x SanDisk Ultra Fit 32GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive – SDCZ43-032G-GAM46 . The 2 USB sticks house the FreeNAS OS and are mirrored for boot redundancy.
- CyberPower CP825LCD 450W. A dedicated UPS for the new NAS.
- 50cm 10Pin Motherboard Female Header to Dual USB 2.0 Adapter Cable. Help connect the case cable to the motherboard
- 19-Pin USB3.0 to USB2.0 Adapter Header Cable. Connect case’s USB 3.0 power buttons to USB 2.0 motherboard header.
- 2 Port Internal USB 3.0 Motherboard Header Adapter Cable
- Easily connect the USB drives to the motherboard for a cleaner external aesthetic
Spiritual Death and Rebirth
Once all the components came, installing them was tricky because the BitFenix MicroATX Case is a strange case not mean for a NAS, but I made it work anyway. I’ve considered moving my personal machine components to it, but that hasn’t happened. This would be one of the first lessons in this journey.
Road of Trials
Thanks to the plethora of FreeNAS information, I had plenty of tools ready to test the components before moving forward.
My testing was predominately done using Ultimate Boot CD, which included CPU and memory testing tools. Memtest passed as well as CPU burn in. I finally noticed that one of the not HDDs passing my test. RMA!!!!
A new drive arrived, but wasn’t being discovered at all. Even by my personal computer. That’s two White Label HDDs RMAed. I contacted the company, they had no problem with the RMA and even explained they’d test a HDD before it’s sent to me. I guess that shows you the profit margin on these White Label HDDs.
Installing FreeNAS is super simple. You really don’t need to know any command line knowledge at all. When you get to the screen that says “you want FreeNAS”, you just hit the “hell yes” button, and within 5 minutes or so, your FreeNAS is installed, and displays a few options for additional administration and an IP address to visit.
Refusal of the Return
After the testing and installation, I began to configure the system how I expected to use it. Creating Windows shares, labeling drives within the system, and one of the most rewarding aspects: finding and customizing shell scripts to perform testing and reports.
I was able to find scripts that can email SMART reports, UPS reports, and security reports to start. Learning shell scripting is something that I’ve been able to carry on to other server operations which would come later. One of the most important scripts creates a daily configuration file so that in case something happens to the OS or hardware, I’ll be able to get back up and running on a new system and maintain my configurations and pool.
With everything setup, I could finally transfer my data from one NAS to another. Since there’s about a 10 year difference between architecture, there was also about about a 10x difference in speed. The ReadyNAS could sustain a transfer rate of less than 30MBs where as the FreeNAS can get to just about 100MBs. At the <30MB rate, it would be a day and half of transfers.
Once everything was said and done, I was able to begin scheduling various backups and file syncs to bring myself back to a fully redundant workflow.
Freedom to Live
Thanks to several built-in plugins, I’ve been able to enjoy services such as Plex to watch videos on my FreeNAS from my Amazon Firestick.
I finally decommissioned my ReadyNAS, and sold both the working and non-working NV+ devices on eBay for some scratch money, and had the old hard drives destroyed.
The process was long, but fulfilling beyond just having my data redundant. I’ve been taken advantage of Virtual Machines and learning Linux in general, which is allowing me to grow further.