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Review: Software-based NAS offers free/low-cost storage

Software-based network attached storage (NAS) allows for deployment on your hardware of choice, on a virtual machine or in the cloud

By Eric Geier, Network World
November 25, 2013 06:42 AM ET

Network World - Earlier this year we tested Network Attached Storage (NAS) appliances. Now we're reviewing software-based NAS that you can load onto your own equipment — whether it's a PC, server, virtual machine, or in the cloud.

We looked at FreeNAS, Openfiler, Open-E DSS, NexentaStor, and SoftNAS. All offer some sort of free solution or service, with some being fully open sourced.

Deploying a software-based NAS solution versus an appliance has some pros and cons. For instance, going with a software solution enables you to select and customize the hardware it runs on to best fit your particular application and environment. For a small and simple network you could load the software on a spare consumer-level PC, or for bigger networks purchase a server or run on a virtual machine.

On the other hand, going with an appliance may be better if you aren't comfortable selecting the hardware, installing the software, and then maintaining both. Appliances are generally more plug-and-play, whereas with software solutions you have to spend some time building your own appliance.

[ALSO: Watch a slideshow of the products]

All the products we reviewed provide at least basic NAS functionality. They all support SMB/CIFS (Windows), NFS (Unix/Linux), and iSCSI while some also support other file sharing protocols like AFP (Apple), WebDAV, and FTP/SFTP. However, none of them provide out-of-the-box full remote access (download/upload) for users via a web browser, like usually offered by NAS appliances (other than some of the software solutions support WebDAV or basic HTTP download).

The best NAS software for your business depends upon your budget and required features. If you're looking for an open source solution that doesn't limit your storage space and provides easy NAS encryption, you should look into FreeNAS.

Another solid, open source solution with commercial options is Openfiler. For a commercial ZFS-based option, consider NexentaStor. For something to deploy on a VM or quickly in the cloud, check out SoftNAS. And for great on-screen help, it’s Open-E DSS.

Here are the individual reviews:

FreeNAS

FreeNAS is one of the most popular free open source NAS software solutions. Primarily developed by iXsystems, it’s licensed under the BSD license terms. It’s FreeBSD-based and can run on nearly any hardware platform. FreeNAS can be used by power users at home, by small/medium businesses, or even in enterprise environments.

FreeNAS supports all the usual file sharing methods: SMB/CIFS, NFS, AFP, FTP, iSCSI, and WebDAV. It offers integration with OpenLDAP, Active Directory, NIS, and NT4 for user accounts. FreeNAS claims to be the first and only open source project to offer encryption on ZFS volumes. Enabling encryption is done via a simple option during volume creation. For additional security, you can add a passphrase or initialize a volume with random data.

[ALSO: Free NAS: Flexible, fast storage, and the price is right]

FreeNAS uses the ZFS filesystem and supports its data protection features. ZFS's software RAID solution, called RAID-Z, offers single parity protection, basically an improved RAID 5. Plus the additional levels RAID-Z2 and RAID-Z3 offer double and triple parity protection, and a software mirror option is offered as well.

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