If you regularly share files on your home or office network, you might want to look into network drives, which are called network attached storage (NAS) drives. Instead of sharing folders with Windows and hosting files from PCs, NAS devices connect directly to the network. They are mini-computers, so you can store files on them and access them from all the PCs.
And because they are specialized for network sharing, they support multiple operating systems and can include additional features.
If you have an old computer gathering dust and some free time, you can set up a FreeNAS machine. Pop the open source LiveCD into the computer and you'll have an advanced NAS device.
You can then host the hard drives of the old computer or plug in USB drives to share.
Of course, you can buy the prettier NAS enclosures for $100 or more and then also have to load it with a drive.
However, you can get a similar machine totally free if you use an old PC and an existing drive. This two-part tutorial will help set up and configure FreeNAS.
Now let's get started!
Benefits of Using NAS Devices
I already briefly mentioned a few benefits that NAS devices offer over setting up simple shares in Windows, however here's a full list:
- Recycle bin support: This in itself can be a life saver and make switching to NAS devices well worth it. If you or other users delete files from Windows shares on other computers, they aren't moved to a recycle bin; they are permanently deleted.
- PCs don't have to be on to access shares: Using Windows to share files means that particular computers must be on for others to access its shared files. NAS drives give you a central storage location, so you can always access the files you want, no matter which PCs are powered on.
- Better and easier control over shares: You'll be able to manage the users and groups, and apply specific rights. Because the NAS drive provides the password authentication, your computers don't have to have matching accounts now.
- Supports native file sharing protocols of Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X: No more installing matching protocols among your different operating systems; NAS drives typically work with all default operating system protocols.
This of course could be a huge problem if you later want to recover the file(s). Some NAS devices (such as FreeNAS), however, have a recycle bin feature that safeguards you from this situation.
When accessing password-protected shares on a remote Windows PC, you have to type in a user and password for a Windows account that's configured on the remote PC.
Thus if you wanted to keep each user's credentials secret, you'd have to create an account for each person on every computer, or at least the ones that are sharing files. However, because a NAS drive controls the access, having matching Windows accounts on all the computers isn't necessary.
FreeNAS Protocols and Features
FreeNAS supports all the popular sharing protocols. For Windows PCs, it supports Common Internet File System (CIFS), also known as SMB or samba.
For Mac users, it supports the Apple Filing Protocol (AFP). It also supports Network File System (NFS) for those Unix-style machines. When you set up the disks, you can even enable encryption.
It also offers access via File Transfer Protocol (FTP), which you could even set up for incoming connections from the Internet.
You'd do this by entering a port forward into your router, for the FTP port and the IP address of the FreeNAS machine. FreeNAS also has a web server you could set up for a local intranet or similarly add a port forward to open it up to the Internet.
FreeNAS also does RSYNC for fast incremental file transfers, self-monitoring, and software-based RAID (0,1,5).
Additionally, it supports UPnP, TFTP, SSH, and Unison. It even has an iTunes/DAAP server, so you can share files among your iPods. Plus it has a built-in BitTorrent server.