This sounds vaguely “I’ve-seen-it-all”-ish, but it isn’t meant that way: I don’t usually get surprised by new versions of Linux or free software. By that I basically mean that open source stuff is so flexible and so dynamic that the multitude of options is continually astounding — and thereby, not always surprising.
I got a real good surprise when I found this thread on the Ubuntu Forums, suggesting a FreeBSD derivative called FreeNAS, designed to hijack any machine with a CDROM and a network connection, and turn it into a rock-solid, bulletproof network attached storage server.
I have almost no experience with FreeBSD, or anything free-ish outside Linux aside from a short brush with SunOS-based MilaX. But this managed to astound me from the instant I booted it up. Not only did it jump straight to an easy, fundamental configuration menu at the console, but it had found all the hardware I had on board and had established a network connection without prodding, and without blinking.
And that was just the start. Once the basics were up and running, I could jump to a different computer, access the system through a Web browser, and configure everything else — services, ports, server protocols, system security, even format and remount hard drives — with no more effort than pointing and clicking.
Now that’s impressive. For me, as an exceedingly unfrequent and frighteningly inexperienced network administrator, manually setting up all the options FreeNAS sticks into a series of Web pages would take me hours upon hours. And howtos upon howtos. And configuration files upon configuration files. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course. Repeat after me: It would be a learning experience.
But, education aside, what’s even better than installing a complete, full-fledged distro to do the same things, is that FreeNAS can do it with a smidgin of resources. I playtested it on the VAIO desktop, and there was never any sign of sweating — and by sweating, of course I mean processor crunch or network lag. I didn’t think to check the memory it needed, but the 192Mb in that was more than enough.
And beyond that I’ll admit I don’t have enough experience to understand everything FreeNAS offers. I set up some basic NFS access, and I saw where it was possible to handle FTP transfers, and I think it might also be able to serve as a torrent tracker (maybe, don’t hold that one to me). You look at it and see if there’s a service or a protocol you recognize, and is useful to you. There’s more than I knew existed.
And call me a brute, but to me, one of the strongest and best points of running FreeNAS off a live CD (because of course, you could install it too), is that if you make a mistake, or if you don’t like the way it’s configured, or you think it’s compromised, you can reboot to a fresh system in a matter of minutes. Back to a default setup, easily reconfigured with no real loss of information or real burden in setup. Restart, and it’s fresh and ready.
Of course, that’s the case with most live CDs, and part of the idea. And of course, depending on the hardware you have on hand, FreeNAS might be equally automatic for you, or might be an exercise in self-flagellation. But provided it works as cleanly and easily as it did for me, I can almost guarantee you’ll want to keep it. I might see if I can echolocate another (?!) small unwanted laptop and run it with FreeNAS all the time. I might as well; leftover laptops are practically falling off trees these days.
And a note of thanks to handy, for bringing the topic to light in the first place, and keeping it alive long enough to spur my interest.