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Open source FreeNAS makes inroads in enterprise data storage

The FreeNAS Project by server vendor iXsystems is attracting attention from customers as far away as outer space who are considering open source NAS storage with commodity hardware.

The open source FreeNAS Project may lack the enterprise installed base and marketing pomp of proprietary NAS platforms, but more and more organizations appear willing to experiment with it in limited implementations.

The FreeNAS Project is an initiative overseen by iXsystems Inc., a San Jose, Calif., company whose primary business involves custom-designed server hardware running open source software.

FreeNAS accounted for approximately 10% of the vendor's $50 million in revenue in 2014, and use cases for its storage continue to emerge, according to iXsystems co-founder and CSO Matt Olander.

"You would not believe the calls we get, and it's across the board. Last year, we got an inquiry about FreeNAS from the United Nations. Before that we were contacted by the IT team for [TV personality] Dr. Phil, which wound up giving our name to the IT team for Martha Stewart. [A branch of the U.S. Armed Forces] ordered 500 of our FreeNAS Mini storage appliances, one for each Humvee. We even had NASA inquire about putting FreeNAS aboard the space station," Olander said.

As its name implies, FreeNAS storage software is available at no charge to customers that want to cobble together shared NAS using commodity storage servers. IXsystems bills FreeNAS as an alternative to NAS storage platforms sold by legacy vendors. The company helps organizations choose the best configuration and supports FreeNAS installations on iXsystems hardware. It provides free consulting to companies on NAS design and charges only for installation and configuration on its servers.

FreeNAS evolves to unified storage platform

The initial plan was for iXsystems to support only FreeNAS software on generally available server and storage hardware, but guaranteeing customer support proved to be problematic.

"We couldn't support just the software without knowing which hardware platform a customer was using," Olander said.

Although not as feature-rich as commercial NAS platforms such as EMC Isilon or NetApp NAS, FreeNAS provides ‘base hygiene’ to stand up a file share, backup target or content repository.
Scott SinclairStorage analyst, Enterprise Strategy Group

FreeNAS technology has advanced a long way in a short time, said Scott Sinclair, a storage analyst with IT consulting firm Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG). Although not as feature-rich as commercial NAS platforms such as EMC Isilon or NetApp NAS, FreeNAS provides "base hygiene" to stand up a file share, backup target or content repository.

"The systems support replication, snapshots, encryption and multiple protocols. If you’re looking for core-level NAS functionality that you can deploy quickly and portably, FreeNAS offers a lot of the checkboxes that five or six years ago were isolated to the higher-end enterprise-level NAS boxes," Sinclair said.

FreeNAS Mini use cases include local storage, remote offices

The FreeNAS platform encompasses FreeNAS Mini and TrueNAS hybrid storage appliances. FreeNAS Mini targets consumers, small businesses and remote offices, while TrueNAS systems are earmarked for larger enterprises.

Both FreeNAS and TrueNAS embed the FreeBSD operating system software, including features for remote replication, data reduction and data protection.

FreeNAS Mini is a four-bay enclosure that supports 6 TB hard disk drives (HDDs) and up to 24 TB of raw storage, with two internal drives bays for 2.5-inch SATA drives as high-performance cache. For optimal performance, the vendor recommends Western Digital (WD) Red HDDs, but the system will support generally available drives by other vendors.

Internal memory is 16 GB DDR3 with error-correcting code, RAID data protection and ZFS File System striping. FreeNAS Mini's user control is Web-browser-based, with remote hardware management across two dedicated ports for 10-Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) connectivity.

FreeNAS Mini supports ZFS compression for data reduction, hardware-accelerated ZFS disk encryption, and automatic and manual point-in-time snapshots for data recovery.

Customers can buy a FreeNAS Mini appliance for $995 and insert their preferred HDDs or buy the device pre-populated with WD Red HDDs. IXsystems' list pricing for populated FreeNAS Mini hardware is as follows:

  • 4 TB starts at $1,325
  • 8 TB starts at $1,495
  • 12 TB starts at $1,625
  • 16 TB starts at $1,895
  • 24 TB starts at $2,395

TrueNAS integrates enterprise-grade storage management

While small and midsize businesses may gravitate to FreeNAS for installations such as testing and development, TrueNAS is geared toward organizations that want scale-out or scale-up NAS. The TrueNAS line includes three hybrid arrays and an all-flash appliance. Features include a self-healing file system, adaptive inline compression and data deduplication, and unlimited snapshots and replication.

Kicking off the hybrid line is the TrueNAS Z20, billed as a backup disk target and file server with up to 320 TB of raw capacity, including an additional expansion shelf. Usable storage potentially tops 750 TB with ZFS disk compression. The Z20 system contains 64 GB of RAM and up to 1.2 TB of solid-state drive (SSD) storage as a read cache. Network connectivity is provided by up to 10 GbE or two 10 GbE interfaces per node.

Next in line is the TrueNAS Z30 that scales to 888 TB of raw storage with a maximum of four expansion shelves. Once data reduction is activated, iXsystems said usable capacity climbs to 2 petabytes (PB) per Z30 appliance. The Z30 comes with 128 GB of RAM, an embedded write cache and 2.4 TB of flash read cache. It is rated for 20 Gbps throughput/bandwidth. Use cases include virtualized infrastructure, business-intelligence applications and high-performance backup.

The most scalable of the TrueNAS hybrid arrays is the TrueNAS Z35 with a maximum 3.8 PB of raw storage. Up to eight expansion shelves can be attached to TrueNAS Z35. ZFS compression pushes usable storage to 10 PB or more. The Z35 contains 256 GB of RAM and is rated for bandwidth speed up to 40 Gbps. An abstracted cache layer enables linear scaling of hybrid storage. SSDs provide up to 4 TB of flash-based read cache.

Rounding out the TrueNAS line is the TrueNAS Z50 TrueFlash, which blends flash and disk storage for up to 30 TB of capacity and is rated for 40 Gbps throughput. With compressed flash, iXsystems said TrueFlash systems could provide up to 300 TB of usable storage. TrueFlash devices use fast random-access memory as a read/write cache.

TrueNAS unified storage appliances support AFP, CIFS, FTP, NFS, SMB and WebDAV file protocols, and iSCSI block storage. TrueNAS appliances support up two storage controllers for high availability and redundancy.

NAS4Free emerges as FreeNAS alternative

In 2009, iXsystems acquired the FreeNAS name after its founders announced plans to place the code in maintenance mode and port it to Debian Linux. At the time, iXsystems had been using FreeNAS appliances "extensively" for in-house primary networked storage, the firm's Olander said.

Olander said iXsystems maintains contacts among NAS4Free users and doesn't view it as an open source competitor.

IXsystems rewrote FreeNAS for a pluggable architecture using the Python programming language and moved it to the open source Django Web-based content management framework with dojo JavaScript toolkit.

The changes did not sit well with everyone in the FreeNAS community.

A separate initiative known as NAS4Free sprang up to continue community-based development of the original FreeNAS 0.7 source code written for mOnOwall/PHP. Just like its predecessor, the NAS4Free distribution is based on FreeBSD.

Houston-based National Specialty Alloys (NSA) Inc. is among the early adopters of NAS4Free storage. The high-temperature alloy supplier runs NAS4Free to support virtual desktop infrastructure in VMware.

"We started with local storage and upgraded to NAS4Free about two-and-a-half years ago [after deciding] that [virtual desktop infrastructure] was how we wanted to go,” said Nigel Hickey, an NSA systems engineer in charge of its storage.

Although NAS4Free helped ease the VDI installation, Hickey said "it’s not the top dog" among NAS platforms and NSA will probably replace it with proprietary storage in the near future.

ESG's Sinclair said the split between FreeNAS and NAS4Free is unfortunate, since end users exhibit a strong desire for open source software to abstract storage hardware.

"It’s interesting that two groups focused on open source would have any sort of infighting. The open source storage space is in its infancy, and there is so much greenfield opportunity that they’re just wasting time fighting with each other," Sinclair said.

Olander said iXsystems maintains contacts among NAS4Free users and doesn't view it as an open source competitor. But iXsystems made the changes in an effort to better support the product and encourage adoption. The company added a comprehensive manual and user guide, how-to videos, and professional training and certification on using FreeNAS.

Despite the promise of open source NAS, convincing buyers to make the switch can be a tough sell. IXsystems was a finalist in a recent deal that also included EMC Isilon and NetApp NAS products. Olander claimed FreeNAS outperformed the other vendors, but wasn't chosen "because our bid quote was so low that it must have looked ludicrous.

"We’ve been asked before why our bids are so low," Olander explained. "I always tell people, 'We'd love to charge you more, but maybe you should ask your existing vendor why their storage costs so much more.'"

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