It was around the time my head was exploding from carrying around USB hard drives that my brother introduced me to FreeNAS.
All I could say at the time was WOW!!. This was around 2010. I remember this because the version I specifically installed a bunch of times was FreeNAS 0.7.2 (sabanda), and I remember FreeNAS 8 was just coming out in beta.
FreeNAS was certainly a different beast then. It was one of the few ways you could run ZFS outside of Solaris, and it was designed to be more of a complete media system instead of a just a storage system that is extensible through plugins/jails/Docker.
Coming from a place where I was constantly losing data due to terrible USB hard drives, ZFS seemed like a jackpot. So I cobbled together a bunch of old hardware, and created this:
It’s a terribly pixelated image, but you get the point. I think it had five 500GB drives in it and used some old hardware I had lying around.
At the time, I had significantly hacked around with the underlying system to install XBMC (now Kodi) as well as finding and getting a video card with HDMI working. This was by no means an easy feat with the state of FreeBSD in 2010/2011. Plex and simple streaming was still a few years off yet, so I was stuck with a “fat” centralized XBMC install on the server, and a couple of micro PCs running XBMC as a client in the bedrooms.
For me, this was an life-changing setup. No longer did I have to deal with files that I couldn’t play due to encoding. No longer was I lugging two or three hard drives between main PC, to load with media, and the Xbox to play a movie. MKV files suddenly became the crème de la crème instead of the bane of my existence.
FreeNAS Sour Apples
(Don’t get me wrong, I respect what FreeNAS has done for the community. If nothing else, they brought ZFS to the masses. But sheeeesh, can they make up their minds and calm down?)
I love ZFS. It is amazing and perfect in so many ways. I can’t count how many times I’ve completely messed something up (unplug a live drive anybody?) and had it keep my data safe.
For as much as I loved ZFS, I disliked FreeNAS. When I first fired it up, it was pretty great. But soon I realized I wanted move beyond simple DNLA file serving. Not to mention be able to run custom services, install drives and fire up XBMC without such a hassle.
FreeNAS 8 changed the playing field for me as well. It made much of the customization I was doing all but impossible. Many of the Linux-ish tools I was using to customize my server were gone as of that version.
In that version, FreeNAS completely changed directions from a “media centric” file server to “serious file storage only”. In hindsight, they probably had a good point. But at the time and with how I was using the earlier version of FreeNAS, it was an annoying shift. Strangely enough, with the upcoming FreeNAS 10 release, it feels a LOT like they are doing this again.
The final straw was the FreeNAS forums. Have you ever been there? TOXIC is an understatement. Ask a simple question and you get absolutely crucified. Even in 2011/2012, it wasn’t much better.
Enter the Ubuntu
My FreeNAS 0.7.2 USB stick died (once again) and I was stuck deciding where to go next. Every time I needed to reinstall FreeNAS with all my hacks, it made me want to break something.
In almost an act of divine providence, Ubuntu happened to be the first Linux distribution that could run ZFS. And not more than a week before my USB stick died again, they had released the first version of ZFSOnLinux that could mount and import FreeNAS ZFS Pools. NO BRAINER
Ubuntu was perfect. All the great ZFS stuff as well as a huge array of easy to install drivers and programs. Were there some growing pains with ZFSOnLinux? Absolutely, but nothing that really endangered the actual data in the zpool. This is the webpage I visited at least a few times monthly for those years.
From 2012-2016 I ran on the same pool in RAIDz2 on Ubuntu. I grew the pool from a single terabyte to over 30TB. I swapped out drives to grow the pool or because they failed. I upgraded CPUs and motherboards at least three times, expanded RAM, swapped SATA cards and more. Most importantly, I never once lost data. XBMC became Plex, and the server started running extra services like nginx/PHP, Grafana and even a few virtual machines via VirtualBox.
And this was “Old Faithful” and the setup I ran until earlier this year in 2016. After 3+ years, I have to believe only the dust held it together.