TL:DR The iXsystem FreeNAS Mini is a powerful and flexible network attached storage device, more than able to serve all your files and stream your media whilst your data is kept secure and free from bit-rot. Go to Conclusion and Recommendation.
iXsystems FreeNAS Mini Review
If you have ever built or are considering building your own network attached storage (NAS) device, you will probably have considered building one with either OpenMediaVault (Debian based) or FreeNAS (based on FreeBSD). But, if you don’t want to source the hardware and build the server yourself, then you can buy an off-the-shelf NAS with FreeNAS pre-installed: the FreeNAS Mini from iXsystems.
The iXsystems FreeNAS Mini system we’re looking at in this review is a power efficient home and small office NAS featuring an octo-core 2.4GHz Atom CPU with 16GB of RAM (upgradable to 32GB) running FreeNAS 9.3.
iXsystems is an open source storage company based in Silicon Valley that builds enterprise servers and storage solutions. Apart from building ‘standard’ servers, they also build custom servers. These are all assembled, tested, and shipped from their headquarters, and technical support is provided in-house by the same engineers that built the systems. iXsystems also supports and sponsors open source projects such as FreeNAS, PC-BSD and FreeBSD.
The operating system of the FreeNAS Mini, is, as you would guess, FreeNAS, a free and open source network attached storage operating system based on FreeBSD. The goal of the FreeNAS project is to create a lightweight, NanoBSD/FreeBSD-based operating system that functions as a full-featured NAS server, complete with a Django-based web user interface and the ability to interface with existing networks, regardless of the operating system or protocol.
The feature that sets FreeNAS apart from other NAS operating systems, is the Zettabyte File System (ZFS) implementation which is considered by many as one of the most secure file systems ever created, ZFS has a strong focus on data integrity, realtime error checking and data healing.
The FreeNAS Mini draws extensively on feedback from the FreeNAS community. Compared to the previous FreeNAS Mini, this one has been completely redesigned to supports new features that have been added to the FreeNAS software. The most important new feature is the addition of ECC RAM which prevents data corruption, before the self-healing properties of ZFS come into play. The CPU has been upgraded from two to eight cores, in response to requests for a CPU that can support both the I/O and encryption demands of ZFS and the parallel processing requirements of many FreeNAS plugins. A second gigabit ethernet port has been added to accommodate additional performance or for link failover, and a dedicated remote management interface (IPMI) is also included.
FreeNAS Mini Features
Some key features of the FreeNAS Mini include:
- Chassis Type: 4 Bay Enclosure
- CPU: Power efficient 8-Core 2.4GHz Intel CPU with AES-NI, drawing only 17 Watts
- 16GB of ECC DDR3 memory for maximum performance and data protection (upgradeable to 32GB)
- Hard Drive Trays: 4 x SATA 3.5” hot-swappable drive bays, with a maximum capacity of up to 16TB depending on RAID layout
- RAID Engine: ZFS (Never use hardware RAID with ZFS!)
- Hardware-accelerated ZFS disk encryption
- RAID levels: RAID-Z (RAID 5), ZFS Mirror (RAID 10), ZFS Stripe
- Hot swap functionality with tool-less, front loading drive bays
- Network: 2 x 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet Port
- Dedicated Remote Hardware Management Interface (IPMI)
- Latest FreeNAS version installed and configured on dedicated, internal flash device
- 3 x USB 2.0 Ports (2 front, 1 rear), 1 x Serial Port (DB9), 1 x VGA
- Physical security: locking front bezel and chassis lock eyelet (for cable or padlock)
- User Control Interface: Web Browser and Remote Hardware Management Interface
- Dimension (in.) 9.45″ W x 8.27 ” D x 9.45″ H (240 x 210 x 240mm)
- Weight (lb): 10.8lb (without drives)
Hardware wise, the latest FreeNAS Mini is a whole lot more powerful than previous versions, and it also has massively more processing power than other off-the-shelf NAS products. But this is what’s needed for a smoothly running ZFS device.
Comparing the iXsystems FreeNAS Mini to other NAS products isn’t easy. It’s very powerful, uses the ZFS file system, and the FreeNAS Mini has four external drive bays, as well as two internal 2.5-inch bays, making the system a six-bay NAS with cache.
The FreeNAS Mini also has several other nice features that complement the powerful processor. I like the inclusion of IPMI, dual gigabit Ethernet ports and the fault tolerant ZFS file system.
The FreeNAS MIni systems that come with hard drives, use Western Digital Red drives. These are specifically designed for small office and home office devices, and have received great reviews.
FreeNAS Mini Build and Configuration
The iXsystems FreeNAS Mini chassis is larger and clunkier than other SOHO NAS units. With iXsystems’ focus on the enterprises, this shouldn’t matter too much, and this also has a benefit: there is more open space to help air flows, and it allows users to add additional hardware in customization (e.g. users can add 2.5″ hard drives as well as a PCIe network card) giving the Mini more hardware flexibility than other devices in this class.
The FreeNAS Mini uses an off-the-shelf Ablecom CS-M50 case. The tool-less drive trays are hot swappable, and the drive bay cover is lockable. The perforated meshed front door allows air to pass through easily, and it ‘hides’ the power and reset buttons, making the system secure when the door is in the locked position.
With the door open, you see four drive bays, two USB ports, four status LEDs, and two USB ports. An additional vent on the bottom of the unit allows air to pass over the internal system components.
On the back, you’ll find a large fan that keeps the disks cool and aids in pulling warm air from the system.
The FreeNAS Mini is based on the ASRock ITX Motherboard with an Intel Avoton C2750 8-core processor. This motherboard features one PCI-Express 3.0 slot, eight SATA3 ports and four SATA2 ports. Only 3 USB 2.0 ports are supported, but from my experience that is more than sufficient.
The FreeNAS Mini has dual RJ45 Gigabit ethernet ports, a serial port (default 9600) as well as an IPMI (Intelligent Platform Management Interface) port for remote management. Both the IPMI and the Gigabit Ethernet Ports have two LED indicators. One shows Activity/Link, and the other shows Speed.
The SATA DOM holds the operating system as well as the system configuration.
The power supply is 80+ Bronze certified.
Setup, Plugins and Usability
The initial setup of the iXsystems FreeNAS Mini may be somewhat confusing or even intimidating to users new to FreeNAS. Using FreeNAS for the first time, you’ll have to go into the FreeNAS interface, set up a user, set up your drive(s) and assign different permissions to these. So, in terms of usability, it is not as user-friendly as most devices designed for the NAS mass market. But having said that, how often do you go into your NAS configuration panels? You’d normally set up, configure and forget about it. The same applies to the FreeNAS; it maybe slightly confusing at first, but with the FreeNAS Documentation you should be able to configure it all without too many problems. Even then, there’s the helpful FreeNAS Community.
FreeNAS allows third parties to create plugins (available FreeNAS plugins) for its interface, including plugins optimised for additional backups, torrenting, or gaming etc. The installation of plugins isn’t always as straightforward as installing apps on other NASes from manufacturers. With most of these plugins, there aren’t the next-next-next-finish wizards you may expect to help you through the installation process. It’s not that FreeNAS is difficult to use and learn, but it is different and you may need to use the command line to get things installed and set up. But I hope and presume that this will be made easier in the upcoming FreeNAS 10.
Unfortunately, there is no official, free, iXsystems supported, mobile app providing remote access, media streaming and cloud synchronisation capabilities. Which is a shame. Recently, somebody built an Android FreeeNAS app, but it isn’t free. I’m of the opinion that iXsystems should provide one for both iOS and Android. For free, just like other NAS manufacturers have done.
From a performance point of view, I cannot but recommend the FreeNAS Mini. It is a superior product and very able to handle anything you throw at it.
The FreeNAS Mini has the performance necessary to serve multiple streaming high definition (HD) clients over the same network, transcode HD videos to mobile devices, support multiple FreeNAS plugins, and supports many filesystems and media sharing protocols. All this without any hickups or stuttering. Working with this device in an enterprise environment is a pleasure. It just works and breezes through the workloads.
Should you want to tune the Mini and configure it to your specific needs, you can dig into the deepest layers of of the system, and set your parameters for optimum performance. Something you won’t be able to do with most other NAS systems.
I may do a another post with more performance related numbers and comparisons in the near future.
Pricing and Purchase
You can buy the iXsystems FreeNAS Mini from $999, excluding hard drives, which some may think is rather expensive, but for that money, you get a fully tested and optimised FreeNAS system with 1 year hardware warranty. FreeNAS uses ZFS, and ZFS requires loads of RAM and a fast CPU to keep your data save. Hence the higher price. Is your data worth it?
Users with special requirements can speak to iXsystems directly about customisations, request a quote from the website, or if you want to purchase a preconfigured system, you can go directly to Amazon.
There are many NASes out there, but there aren’t many ZFS-based NASes available. To make the narrowing down easier, ask yourself “how important is my data to me?” If it’s really important and you can’t risk to loose it, you either need reliable backups, or you want a ZFS based NAS with on-the-fly error checking (I’m not saying that having a ZFS system, makes backups redundant!).
Although the FreeNAS interface is not as user-friendly as others in the Mini’s category, once you become familiarised you have a system with an extensive feature set and top notch data reliability thanks to ZFS.
Often times when looking at products built with off-the-shelf components, one tends to look at the hardware price rather than the true value of a product. The FreeNAS Mini components are readily available from IT stores and websites, and you can easily assemble the system with many problem. If that’s what you want to do, it doesn’t mean you have a FreeNAS Mini! Instead, you have a collection of hardware parts that you purchased with warranties spread across several different companies. Also, iXsystems tests the system and has a burn-in procedure to ensure the hardware is working and performing as it’s supposed to.
The FreeNAS Mini takes the hassle out of purchasing individual components, assembling them and installing FreeNAS.
The FreeNAS Mini is great in homes with lots of data and streaming going on, as well as fast and reliable in an office environment storing your data and serving your files.