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Is free storage software worth the risk?

Learn about the pros and cons of using free storage server software for your organization.

What you will learn in this tip: While the idea of free server and storage software sounds tempting to a cash-strapped IT department, they may not be suitable for every organization. Learn about how to determine if using free storage software is a good choice for your company.

Anyone who has ever looked at purchasing a traditional file server knows that the costs can be staggering. When you add up the cost of the server hardware, server license and client access licenses, the total cost of the project can be well beyond what a smaller business can comfortably afford.

Thankfully there are some alternatives. Several software companies offer free storage software that you can use to create your own network-attached storage (NAS)-based file server. For small companies with more demanding storage needs, it is even possible to create a storage area network (SAN) for free. Some of the free storage server software packages that are available include FreeNAS, Openfiler, OpenSolaris ZFS NAS and StarWind Software Inc.'s StarWind Free Edition.

The advantages of using free storage software

The price. Obviously one of the biggest benefits to using free storage software is the price. It’s hard to argue with free. But even though the software itself may be free, you still have to pay for the hardware and any maintenance costs. Even free software has to be run on adequate hardware.

Flexibility. The main advantage to using free storage software is the flexibility that such software offers. Most of the free storage server software that is available allows you to essentially turn a PC or a server into a NAS appliance. Often it is possible to use existing hardware like an old server that’s been retired. That server may be inadequate for application hosting, but may work perfectly fine as a storage appliance. If you don’t have old hardware that can be repurposed then you could always purchase a PC to use as a NAS server. 

The flexibility offered by free storage server software doesn’t end with your choice of a computer to run the software on. Assuming that you have adequate hardware, most of the free storage server software lets you pick a RAID level that best meets your needs. Free storage servers often limit you to using direct-attached storage, and may limit your overall capacity or may limit the number of users that can concurrently connect in some cases.

If your needs change over time, you can usually upgrade the hardware with additional memory, faster network cards, higher capacity disks, etc. While it is true that commercial storage software offers the same degree of flexibility, the same cannot always be said for hardware appliances (especially lower end NAS appliances). Such devices typically limit you to using the hardware that was supplied by the manufacturer.

The downsides of using free storage server software

No technical support. While there are many benefits to using free storage server software, there are some disadvantages that also deserve consideration. Sometimes you get what you pay for, especially when it comes to technical support. Free software doesn't typically include technical support.

Technical expertise. If you do go with a storage server, then keep in mind that doing so will require a greater depth of technical knowledge than would be required by those using NAS appliances. Storage servers usually offer more advanced features than low-end NAS appliances, which makes storage knowledge a must. Those who do decide to deploy a storage server must also be prepared to deal with ongoing maintenance tasks such as patch management and routine troubleshooting.

Vendor certification. Just as the publisher of a free storage server package might not offer any technical support, you will also likely find that the server package is not supported by other vendors for use with their products. Vendors of hardware NAS appliances will sometimes certify their products for use with various products. For example, some of the Drobo appliances are certified to work with VMware, Citrix, etc.

Scalability. Another issue with free storage server software is that the supported file systems may not meet your future needs. In addition, will it offer advanced features you might need as your storage needs grow?

Hardware costs. Another issue is hardware cost. Even though it is possible to download storage server software for free, a NAS appliance may ultimately be a less expensive option. Unless you have existing hardware that you can repurpose, it may be less expensive to purchase a low-end NAS appliance than a full-blown computer that will act as a storage server.

When it comes to storage, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. There are advantages and disadvantages to each storage server option. It's essential to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each approach to determine which solution is the best fit for your organization.

About this author: Brien M. Posey is a seven-time Microsoft MVP for his work with Exchange Server, Windows Server, Internet Information Server (IIS) and File Systems/Storage. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once a network administrator for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox.

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