FreeNAS – Detachable Storage has Come of Age


April 26, 2013


While regular readers of this column will appreciate that I am long in tooth (the corollary being that I am short in memory) – I still remember 8 inch 1.2MB floppy disks that would only hold less than 1MB under CPM.

My first I.T. task before I jumped ship form electronics to computing was diagnosing an elderly CPM based word processing system that had 5.25 inch floppy drives and an equally mature Enhanced Small Disk Interface (ESDI) hard drive. Based on the old ST506/412 interface originally devised by Seagate Technology, in the early 80’s ESDI was a common sight for the field engineer. While I cannot remember the exact capacity of the drive, it was only double digit Megabytes – if that. After a time examining the system, it was clear that the hard disk was either encountering a large number of consecutive bad sectors or had suffered a head crash, as the endless “Skip Retry Ignore” prompt testified.

It wasn’t until I moved from the electronics environment to I.T. that I encountered the 8 inch drives. Attached to some arcane piece of big iron, these drives were well past their sell by date as demonstrated by the protective layer of dust that gathered around the front bezel and indeed the door handle that was used to secure the floppy disk in place and lower the heads onto the media. Oh, how in these days the demons of bad sectors, corrupt media, and dirt used to haunt the I.T tech – a backup floppy with a year or two accounting data could be destroyed by a well aimed fingerprint onto the media itself. Saying that, with a scalpel, a sacrificial carcass from a new floppy disk and some industrial alcohol the data often could often be recovered. The old school trick of holding the media up against a bright light would allow the technician to see if the drive heads had come in contact with the media, and if no light showed through, a gentle clean with a non-abrasive lint-free tissue often cured the problem. While magnetic drop-outs did occur, more often than not physical contamination was the cause of many issues (including dirty drive heads).

This progression and evolution of floppy media continued through 1.44MB and 2.88MB and onwards, until the time came for the hard drive and CDROM drive to become ubiquitous. I remember a fellow engineer proudly demonstrating his new CDROM drive, and commenting on how flawlessly the proprietary software had installed under Windows 3.1. Suddenly, attached media had grown up and the availability of an encyclopedia on the desktop via this shiny platter (which at the time seemed almost indestructible) was revolutionary. Yet the concept of quickly expandable mass online storage hadn’t really been adopted in the commercial environment – yes we had dedicated servers, but these only handled certain network protocols. If you wanted TCP/IP the stack itself was not included in the commercial Operating Systems of the time, so you were strictly limited in flexibility.

While the concept of Network Attached Storage (NAS) has been available for a long time (the original 3com 3server originally shipped in 1985), the idea of a separate network appliance didn’t really take off until the late 90’s. The market up until this point for storage expansion was dominated by Direct Attached Storage (DAS). Servers were often purchased with plenty of redundant internal and slot pace for expansion, and adding an additional SCSI card and drive combination at a later date was fairly trivial. However, this was not always an ideal solution, as the server would need to be taken offline for the installation of the hardware, and even if the server had an external SCSI interface, hot-plug technology was still a long way off in the small / medium sized business sector.

 The first truly innovative device that I encountered was the Cobalt Qube, which offered a wide array of functionality and user interface options. Initially designed to be fan-less, the Microprocessor without Interlocked Pipeline Stages (MIPS) based architecture only required 20 Watts of power to run, but a fan was added due to customer expectation that a quality device would require one. Running a modified version of Redhat Linux, the device hit the streets at $1000. Everything was available via either the command line via SSH or Telnet, or a more sophisticated interface was available via the web interface. This is where a NAS based appliance offers great benefits to the network administrator – just plug and go, no formatting required – just copy your data across if required.

The big question in the free software community at the time was why? With a bit of tuning, any Linux / BSD distribution could offer this functionality but the unique selling point of the Qube was the support and the elegant design of both the user interface and the hardware itself. Appealing to a market sector that wanted a “plug and play” solution was critical, yet it was still just a pre-configured box. This is where FreeNAS truly offers the best of both worlds, a downloadable ISO for those that want to use custom hardware and an appliance for those that just want to plug and go.

The ability to plug in a dedicated appliance via a network cable and reach it via CIFS, SMB, NFS, FTP, SSH or RSYNC blows wide open traditional closed commercial environments. This is mass storage for the masses, whether it be the small business, the netizen with a large collection of downloads, or as a backup solution. As FreeNAS is very light, it is ideal for installing on older hardware, and provided the target box has > 6GB of RAM, the security and additional functionality of ZFS is available facilitating snapshots.

The bottom line is this – products like the award winning FreeNAS offer complex functionality driven by proven technology that is available free to anyone that is willing to download and install an ISO. As an appliance, the FreeNAS mini is also available off the shelf from iXsystems. That indeed, is technological evolution in action – power, choice and flexibility.


Rob Somerville has been passionate about technology since his early teens. A keen advocate of open systems since the mid eighties, he has worked in many corporate sectors including finance, automotive, airlines, government and media in a variety of roles from technical support, system administrator, developer, systems integrator and IT manager. He has moved on from CP/M and nixie tubes but keeps a soldering iron handy just in case.

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