The Devil Has Your Data

By Nimish Chandiramani Published Date
01 - Aug - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - Aug - 2007
The Devil Has Your Data

The magic of a brand new Network Attached Stroage (NAS) server with none of the monetary pain

All of us know and love the company file server. It's where we dump our essential data and programs (wink, wink), not to mention actual work-related data. It's a way of ensuring that even if our workstations decide to go south, all our hard work stays intact. It's not even an option-for every organisation with more than one person, the centralised file server has been a fixture since the early eighties.

New Wave
We're all used to file servers, but for small businesses, Network Attached Storage (NAS) is quickly emerging as a much better option. Dedicated file servers can be expensive: consider the cost of an extra license of Windows Server 2003 or another support license for Linux, not to mention the cost of the hardware to run the OS. In companies where it isn't feasible to invest in different servers for every purpose, these file servers double up as domain controllers, DNS servers or Internet gateways-much more demanding tasks. Inevitably, their performance as file servers begins to suffer, and worse, if they should crash, they'd take down more than one essential service with them.

NAS servers are cheaper-mostly because they use more basic hardware and run a rudimentary operating system that's built for the sole purpose of managing storage. They also support multiple file-sharing protocols, so Windows users can use the Common Internet File System (CIFS) protocol, and Linux users can use the Network File System (NFS) protocol, to access the same data. (Of course, this isn't really an issue if you've standardised a platform across your organisation.)

While you can get a basic NAS server for as little as Rs 8,000 (without the hard disks), the ones with more features can cost a lot more-even reaching a ridiculous Rs 35,000! And then, there's the option of turning an ageing old PC into your own NAS server...

To start with, you're going to need a PC of modest configuration. Even a Pentium II with 128 MB of RAM will work for a team of up to twenty people; you'll need to consider something higher for bigger teams. If it's got a motherboard that supports SATA hard disks, so much the better. A USB Flash drive is optional (we'll get to that in a bit), and you'll need hard disks-as many as your board can support, or as many as you want, whichever is lesser. On this month's DVD, you'll find FreeNAS-a FreeBSD-based operating system built to manage your NAS server. Burn the ISO on to a CD and boot from it to start setting up your NAS server.

Setting Up
Installing FreeNAS to your system is optional-it'll do its job just as well running off the CD, but remember that every time you reboot, you'll need to reconfigure the server all over again. You can't format or share any hard drive you install FreeNAS on, so we recommend installing it to a USB Flash drive instead (be sure to first check whether your
motherboard supports booting off USB).

Add your disks before anything else 

The installation is a no-brainer (just remember that your USB disk will be called "da0"), and in a couple of minutes, you'll find yourself being told to eject the CD-ROM and reboot. Now that it's installed, you can consider disconnecting your CD-ROM drive to make room for another hard disk.

Set up a RAID array to protect your data better

When you boot into your new FreeNAS installation, you'll see a very simple console menu. All you need to bother with here is to assign an IP address and subnet mask to this server to get it on your network; your work with this particular machine is done. You can now administer your FreeNAS server from any workstation on the network, using the Web user interface-just enter the server's IP address in your browser's address bar and hit [Enter]. The default username is admin and the password is freenas-which you should change when you're done with your settings.

If you're on a predominantly Windows-based network,
the CIFS protocol works best

The Core
The first thing you need to do is add your hard disks under Disks > Management. Use the icon to begin adding your disks. A hard disk standby time of 30 minutes will give you a respectable balance between performance and power savings if your network is going to be busy; if the NAS box isn't going to be used too often, you might even consider pulling it down to five minutes. You can also decide how much you want to trade off between performance and disk noise-very useful if you work in a small, quiet place where disk noise can become extremely bothersome. Leave the Preformatted FS option as Unformatted-you should format your disks under Disks > Format when you're done with this part.

Your shared disks can be accessible through various protocols-even FTP

If you have two identical hard disks, consider using a RAID-1 setup: the two hard disks will appear as one, and data will be written to both of them simultaneously-so if one disk fails, your data is still intact. The disadvantage, unfortunately, is that you lose the extra storage the second hard disk offers you. To start with your software RAID, select Software RAID under File System in Disks > Format for both the disks. Under Disks > Software RAID > RAID-1, use the icon to add a new RAID array; give it a name and select the hard disks you want to add. FreeNAS also supports other RAID formats-for more dope on them, refer to Know More About RAID in our January 2007 issue.

Spread The Joy
Once you're done setting up your hard disks, it's time to share them with the world. The first thing to do is mount the disks and give them a share name, which will let people access the disk over the network. You'll find this option under Disks > Mount Point. The next step is to create Groups and Users (in that order, under Access > Users and Groups) who will be authorised to access the shared drives. If you're on a Windows domain, use the Active Directory option-this will automatically authenticate all the people on your network using their domain usernames and passwords.

Finally, it's time to decide on a sharing protocol. If you're on a predominantly Windows-based network, the CIFS protocol works best. Your shared drives will show up as regular Windows shares, and any Linux client that wanders into your network can use a Samba client to connect to it. On a Linux-based network, the Network File System (NFS) is a better option-it's the native distributed file system for Unix- and Linux-based networks.

If you want your server to be accessible over the Internet, enable the FTP protocol as well, but do ensure that you disable Anonymous Logins. You'll also need to configure your router to send FTP requests to the server's IP address.

At this point, you have a basic, working NAS server. You can now customise it-its name, the admin password and so on-under System > General Setup. You can even encrypt your disks for an added level of security.

When you're through, disable the console menu under System > Advanced, and disconnect your keyboard and monitor from the main server. To ensure that nobody removes your USB disk, you could get yourself a separate front-panel USB attachment, but instead of attaching it to your front panel, leave it loose. Connect the drive and then leave inside the system's cabinet.

One of the disadvantages of FreeNAS is that its user management is somewhat rudimentary-it's either grant or deny. FreeNAS has none of the depth we're used to with regular operating systems. That aside, if you have old hardware that can't serve a better purpose and don't want to invest in a new server, FreeNAS is the perfect storage solution for your network.

Nimish ChandiramaniNimish Chandiramani