Review: Cloud storage

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

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.

Features chart

Click to see: Features chart

Here are the individual reviews:


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.

ZFS Snapshots provide local and remote backup/replication and restoration. Snapshots can be sent to a remote ZFS file system and future backups can be made incrementally including just changes to the file system to reduce backup transfers. FreeNAS also supports the major backup solutions: Windows Backup, Apple Time Machine, rsync, and PC-BSD Life Preserver.

FreeNAS offers its software as a downloadable CD image (.iso) and disc image (.img) and provides downloadable GUI and legacy upgrades. All are available in 32-bit for x86 or i386 machines and 64-bit for x86 machines. Currently, FreeNAS 9.1.1 supports the same hardware found in the amd64 and i386 sections of the FreeBSD 9.1 Hardware Compatibility List. When using with the ZFS file system, the amount of RAM is crucial; the more, the better.

After booting from the CD/DVD, you see DOS-like install screens. Once installed it will boot into a setup menu where you can configure the network settings, restore the FreeNAS defaults, and access the shell. It also displays the address where you can access the web-based interface.

Freenas console

The web-based interface has multiple tab support and integrated pop-up dialog windows. We found some usability issues: the main menu wouldn't show in Internet Explorer and the way the tabs work could be improved to reduce tab clutter. And though it doesn't provide a get started menu/checklist, it does have a convenient alert icon to notify you of any issues.

Keep in mind, iXsystems also sells appliance hardware preloaded with FreeNAS. FreeNAS Mini and Mini Plus are designed for small/home offices and the TrueNAS line for enterprise environments.


Openfiler provides a free open source NAS solution, plus commercial editions with more NAS/SAN functionality. Originally started by Xinit Systems and now maintained by Openfiler Ltd (UK), the open source edition is released under the GNU General Public License version 2. It’s based on the Linux 2.6 kernel and the rPath Linux distribution, compatible with industry standard server hardware or virtual platform.

The Openfiler Open Source Edition (OSE) delivers block-level (basic iSCSI target) and file-level storage export protocols. The Openfiler Commercial Edition (CE) requires you to sign-up for their support subscriptions starting at $1,010.72 per year. It provides enhancements such as block level replication, high availability, iSCSI target for virtualization (costing an additional one-time $1,295.80), and Fibre Channel target support (costing an additional one-time $1,295.80),

Openfiler supports most of the popular network sharing protocols: SMB/CIFS, NFS, HTTP/WebDAV, and FTP. However it lacks support for AFP. Network directories supported include NIS, LDAP (with support for SMB/CIFS encrypted passwords), Active Directory (in native and mixed modes) and Hesiod.

Openfiler can create automatic point-in-time snapshots and supports the shadow copy feature of SMB/CIFS. It also provides synchronous and asynchronous volume migration and replication.

The latest version is available as a downloadable CD/DVD image (.iso) for 64-bit and an earlier version is also available as a downloadable CD/DVD image (.iso) or VMware image for 32-bit and 64-bit. The basic system requirements of Openfiler is a 32-bit or 64-bit computer/server with at least 512MB RAM and 1GB storage for the OS image.

Openfiler can be installed via a graphical or text mode. Once installed it will boot to a command-line interface where you can login to the console and it also displays the address of the web-based interface.

The web-based interface is not as slick as most of the other solutions we reviewed but doesn't greatly affect usability. For instance, clicking on a menu or shortcut loads a full HTML page rather than a tab or pop-up window.

Open filer


Open-E provides an enterprise-level NAS/SAN solution called Open-E Data Storage Software (DSS). They offer a feature-limited free Lite version (that can be upgraded later) for use up to 2TB of storage and a full commercial offering as well. After a 60-day free trial of their full product, pricing starts at $895 for up to 4TB storage and with varying levels in between. Pricing goes up to $2,716 for unlimited storage

Open-E supports all of the major NAS protocols: SMB/CIFS, NFS, AFP, HTTP, FTP/SFTP, and rsyc. Plus for SANs it offers iSCSI and Fibre Channel. It supports the following network directories: Active Directory, NIS, LDAP, ADS and NIS.

It supports continuous and automated data, volume replication and snapshots. It supports automated updates and rollbacks of OS as well. Plus it supports many backup agents, such as Backup Exec, Retrospect, and BrightStor.

They offer Open-E DSS as a downloadable CD/DVD image (.iso) for installing on physical or virtual machines and also offer a ZIP file for preparing a bootable USB flash drive. Minimum requirements are at least a 64-bit, 2 GHz CPU and 2GB of RAM.

The Open-E installer and console are both DOS-like interfaces. Though not entirely apparent, you can make basic system and network configuration changes from the console; hit the F1 key on the keyboard to view the shortcuts.

On your first visit to the web-based interface you must configure the product key; enter one if purchased or register for the free trial or Lite version. Then on your first login you're presented with an initial setup wizard, helping you configure language, password, network, and other general settings. Although the web-based interface is fairly simple (doesn't support multiple tabs or pop-us) we still found it to be user-friendly and attractive. The integrated help is very convenient; there's a question mark icon next to each setting menu that takes you to the documentation on that particular menu.

Open E


NexentaStor is an enterprise-class NAS/SAN OS based from the community supported IllumOS that sports the ZFS file system. The community edition supports most features but is limited to 18TB of storage and is not supposed to be used in commercial production. The enterprise edition is offered as a 45-day free trial and then pricing starts at $1,725 for 8TB.

NexentaStor reaps some of the same ZFS-based benefits as FreeNAS: snapshots, RAID-Z support, integrated replication, and enhanced data protection. It supports the usual NAS protocols (SMB/CIFS, NFS, FTP WebDAV) except for AFP. And for SANs, it offers iSCSI and Fibre Channel. It integrates with Active Directory and LDAP, including UID mapping, netgroups, and X.509 certificate-based client authentication.

NexentaStor is available as a CD/DVD (.iso) image, VMware Image, and Citrix XenServer Image. Though possible, 32-bit processors aren't recommended for production use. Sixty-four-bit is recommended along with a minimum of 8GB of RAM plus 1GB per 1TB raw disk space minimum.

When booting the CD/DVD image we were presented with a DOS-like installer and at the end it displayed the basic system and login information. On the first boot you must enter a trial or commercial registration key and set the basic network and web GUI access settings. After the initial configuration, the console interface requires you to login in order to make any changes, unlike many of the other solutions where you can make basic changes without having to login.


On your first visit to the web-based interface you're presented with an initial configuration wizard to set the hostname, localization, password, and notification settings. Then you're taken to another wizard to get you started with the NAS configuration, like for the iSCSI, disks, volumes, and folders/shares settings.

Although the web-based interface isn't the slickest looking, its user-friendly and easy to use. The interface doesn't support multiple tabs or pop-up dialogs; clicking on a shortcut loads a full html page. Hover over the main sections on the top (Status, Settings, Data Management, and Analytics) and a sub-menu appears. There are no quick help shortcuts or tips throughout the interface, however you can click the Help link on the top to download the User Guide or Installation Guide.


SoftNAS takes a different approach than the other vendors. Its NAS software is designed for running on virtual machines (VMware ESXi 4.x/5.x and Microsoft Hyper-V) or in the cloud via Amazon EC2 instances, and it does not offer a downloadable CD/DVD image. The company offers free solutions designed for home or small offices and commercial solutions for use in larger businesses and enterprise environments.

SoftNAS supports sharing via SMB/CIFS, NFS and iSCSI. Although it doesn't by default support other protocols, like AFP, FTP, and WebDAV. They could be added via CentOS.

It offers downloadable VMs designed for VMware ESXi 4.x and 5.x and Microsoft Hyper-V 2008 R2 and 2012. It also provides free deployment of all its software editions on Micro-sized instances on the Amazon EC2 cloud. Though it doesn't cover Amazon's usage charges, Amazon currently offers free Micro instances for a year on new accounts and up to 30GB of free storage.

SoftNAS offers two editions of its software. SoftNAS Essentials is provided free with up to 300GB of storage, designed for small/home offices, development, or other small-scale projects. It can be deployed on VMs or the Amazon EC2 cloud. Pricing starts at $29.95 per month per TB or $195 per month per TB, or a perpetual license for $295 per TB.

SoftNAS Professional can be deployed on VMs or the Amazon EC2 cloud. It provides a fully-functional 14-day free trial with up to 5TB. Then pricing starts at $49.95 per month per TB or $695 per month per TB, or a perpetual license for $995 per TB.

SoftNAS Cloud is designed specifically to be deployed on the Amazon EC2 cloud, supporting up to 20TB of storage, and free when deployed on the Micro-sized instances, excluding any Amazon charges. Software charges from SoftNAS starts at $0.24 per hour for Standard Small instances and up to $3.10 per hour for High I/O 4XL instances.

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