Friday, May 2, 2008

Reviving a Maxattach NAS 4300: Part II

When I started writing about the NAS 4300, I thought it would be relatively short and would fit in one post. It looks like this post will expand to at least 3 articles and may become 4. The presentation of the issues requires more than I like to publish in one article. In addition, there were several issues with the free NAS software. I will address them as best I can.

Selecting the Replacement Drives and other Considerations.

To remind the reader, this box has an unusual feature of an onboard SCSI controller. This creates some unique opportunities to improve on the original setup. There is even an external SCSI connector that can be connected to a server rack like the one below it in my image.

The possibilities are:

  • 1. Replace all or some of the drives with SCSI drives and improve the performance

  • 2. Replace all the drives with ATAPI hard disk drives

  • 3. Install a SATA (4) drive SATA controller and 4 SATA hard disk drives

  • 4. Install a hardware RAID controller and matching drives (SCSI or SATA)

  • It is interesting that these are all available inside what is really a single purpose device. My choice was governed by what was available in my lab. I found 3 WD2000JB 200 GB drives. Along with the SCSI drive previously mentioned, a spare 18 GB SCSI drive, to fill out the box

    If I wanted to fill out the box maximizing cost/benefit, I would chose 4 large ATAPI drives, 500 GB to 750 GB. An interesting point of this box is that you could conceivably add a drive rack like the one in the first image of Part 1 and connect it to the external SCSI port. I believe in recycling old equipment.

    Choosing the NAS software and Operating System

    This became a real challenge. Centos which is my favorite linux distro for servers didn't install on the NAS. It turned out after attempting several installs of Centos and other NAS systems that one of the onboard memory modules was bad. The NAS comes with (3) 128 MB memory modules. I removed the bad one and was left with 256 MB. This is quite sufficient for a non-windows NAS.

    Centos is a full implementation of the Red Hat Enterprise OS and is my first choice for servers. It is well maintained and easy to install. My only gripe is that with the release of version 5, they have removed the option to install everything. As a data recovery shop we need everything including file system support for NTFS and Mac HPF. The good news is that Centos 4 installed without a problem.

    I spent way too much time testing installs for this post. I tested 3 opensource NAS distros, Openfiler, FreeNAS and SMEServer. Full reviews of each are beyond the scope of this post. This post was never meant to be a full analysis of NAS software. However, I will provide what little insight I could into each.


    This is a full featured NAS set up and management system. It is geared to large companies utilizing many servers. It allows you to manage all the servers from a single location. It is complicated and the documentation is limited. They sell a version of the "Administrator Guide" but I found it online in pdf here.

    It installed without a problem. However, it needs a primary domain controller to complete the setup. I abandoned this one after getting frustrated by it.


    FreeNAS is based on the FreeBSD OS. It has a tiny foot print of 32 MB but is a fully functional file server managed with a web interface. It was easy to install taking just a few minutes. However, it has one big drawback. It has marginal support for multiple drives. I was dissuaded from using it by number of problems others were having with the software RAID support. If you don't need software RAID is is a good choice for a simple and easy to manage NAS.

    SME Server

    I came across this implementation several years ago. It was recommended by a computer consultant who I had done some work for. It is a modified linux distro. He gave me a copy to test. It was impressive at that time for its simplicity. In its current incarnation, it is based on an older release of Centos (4.6) then I am currently using. Its major drawback is its preset configuration. It will automatically set up your drives in RAID 5 if you have 4 similar sized drives. Otherwise, you have to build the RAID set up yourself using LVM.

    Setting up the NAS

    So, as it happens you walk up to the NAS with your newly created CD and remember that the NAS doesn't come with a CD and a standard ATAPI CD drive isn't bootable. (Did I forget to mention this?) I searched for an old SCSI based CD drive and found several in my collection. Unfortunately, only one worked. You can find them available on the web but beware that as you need one that uses the old 50 pin ribbon cable connectors or the newer 68 pin connectors. You will also need the cable. I used a 68 pin cable with an adapter to a 50 pin external to a 50 pin pin internal. It took 3 different connectors. I found this internal HP drive sold on a mac site. Please note that I don't have any connection with any site recommended here. However, for $13 it seems an excellent buy. You will also need an additional 'Y' power splitter for the CD drive. I have them lying around but can be obtained from many computer parts suppliers and online.

    My 4300 NAS boots up with an option to load a boot menu by pressing F1. This brings up a fairly complicate menu with options for booting and resetting the NAS to default settings. It also allows you to fail a particular drive. You are required to set the boot option and then exit forcing a reboot. Please make sure that both the SCSI CD and SCSI hard disk are displayed in the SCSI adapter start up. The Adaptec bios will display the drive and SCSI ID.

    Installation of FreeNAS

    Installation was relatively simple although there were a few moments that could have been clearer. First download the ISO image from the FreeNAS website. Burn the ISO onto a CD using your favorite burning software. I used Nero as it comes free with my burner.

    Now, you are ready to insert the FreeNAS boot disk. To review. You have the SCSI CD drive, SCSI hard disk and the (3) IDE drives properly configured. I set the IDE drives to Primary Master and Slave and Secondary Master.

    When the system reboots after setting the boot option to CD drive, the FreeNAS CD runs without supervision. It will boot up a fully functional NAS system. However, our goal is to load the FreeNAS OS/software onto the SCSI hard disk. Here is one of the confusing parts. FreeNAS displays just its splash screen after booting. Hitting the space bar gets you to its menu management system. The last option is the install option to hard disk or flash memory. (Note the console allows you to set up the network interfaces and some other options. I will try to cover NAS setup in a future post.) The FreeNAS wiki is an excellent source for installation and configuration.

    During the installation you are given several options. I chose "Full install with data partition", followed by choosing the SCSI drive (da0) for the installation. It will complete the installation in just a few minutes. You will have to reset the bios to boot from the SCSI disk. (Note: that you can only boot from a hard disk configure as SCSI ID# 0.)

    After completing the installation, I discovered that FreeNAS doesn't deal well with software RAID. I found after researching this issue on the web that many users were dissatisfied with FreeNAS because of the software RAID problems. I ended up abandoning FreeNAS as a result.

    I returned to using the Centos Distro. I was able to create a complete NAS with many additional features using Centos. It just isn't as simple as FreeNAS. I will discuss this further in my next post.