You may want to check out my updated mini ITX NAS Build guide.
Note: This post was updated in August 2013 to reflect current pricing and parts availabilty.
I’ve been looking for a new machine to replacing my aging Dell Precision 360 I’m currently using as a FreeNAS server. The FreeNAS Mini from iXsystems caught my eye because of its compact design. I like the idea of a NAS box that doesn’t take up much space or consume very much power. The hardware specs on the Mini are pretty respectable too, it has plenty of power to run ZFS but still maintains a low power footprint.
If you’re looking for a turnkey solution the FreeNAS mini is a good choice, but if your willing to build your own you can save a substantial amount of money. I decided to do some research to put together a parts list to build a NAS as similar to the FreeNAS Mini as possible. From the parts list below you can put together a high quality 4TB NAS for about $750.
The FreeNAS Mini Appliance
|4 Bay Mini ITX Chassis with 4 Hot Swap Bays
|Low Power Intel Dual Core
|8GB DDR3 (2 x 4GB)
|Available in 4/8/12TB
|8.5″W x 12.5 “D x 8.0 “H
Below is a list of all the components you will need to build the mini NAS. Depending on what the storage requirements are for your NAS you can add additional drives, or even install smaller hard drives instead. In order to reach a capacity of 12TB you can use four 3TB Seagate Barracuda hard drives instead.
|ARK ITX/CS-CI03 Black Mini-ITX Server Chassis
|Intel BOXDH67CFB3 Mini-ITX Media Series Board
|Intel Core i3-2120T 3.3GHz
|Low Profile Heatsink
|Dynatron T459 Low Profile Active Copper
|Corsair 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3 PC3-1066 Kit
|Seagate Barracuda 7200 1TB 7200RPM SATA 6 Gb/s NCQ 64MB Cache
|SanDisk Cruzer Fit 8GB Flash Drive
|Internal USB Header (Optional)
|Koutech USB 2.0 Header-Pin to Dual Type-A Adapter
Chassis – CFI A7879
I was able to locate the exact same chassis that iXsystems selected for their Mini NAS, the CFI 4-Bay mini ITX chassis. This chassis is a cube style case with 4 hot swap bays which connect to a SATA backplane. In addition there is room for another internal drive to be mounted, this is a handy feature since FreeNAS requires a separate drive for the operating system.
The case comes with a 200 watt power supply which should be more than sufficient for this build. To keep things cool there is a built in 120mm fan to provide airflow without producing much noise. On the front panel there are two USB 2.0 ports, a power button, power LED, and a hard drive activity LED.
The small footprint and sata backplane make this chassis a great choice for a small form factor NAS.
Motherboard – Intel BOXDH67CFB3
An Intel Mini ITX media series board is the heart of this storage appliance. This motherboard utilizes the Intel H67 series chipset which supports 2nd generation core Intel core processors (socket 1155). There are a ton of features packed into this tiny motherboard making it a highly versatile board. For connecting external storage the board provides two USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, and an eSata port.
For network connectivity there is an onboard 1GB Intel ethernet controller. The board also provides a 16x PCIe slot which could be used to add an additional ethernet card, or a wireless adapter.
Processor – Intel Core i3-2120T
The Intel 2120T processor brings plenty of performance to the table yet only has a TDP of 35 watts! This 2.6GHz processor is based on the Sandy Bridge architecure and offers two physical CPU cores with 3MB of layer 3 cache.
I feel much more comfortable using a Core i3 processor to run FreeNAS instead of a low power Atom chip. The ZFS filesystem is fairly CPU and memory intensive so it’s important to ensure the CPU is able to keep up without running out of power.
Low Profile Heatsink /Fan – Dynatron T459
The stock heatsink / fan included with the processor is too large to fit into the chassis. Dynatron makes a nice low profile heatsink assembly with a low clearance to fit inside the chassis.
Memory – Corsair 8GB DDR3 Kit
Ram is another area where you want to ensure you install enough to provide fast performance. FreeNAS needs at least 4GB of memory at a minimum, 6GB is recomended for ZFS. This corsair 8GB kit will provide enough memory to keep a ZFS filesystem running quickly.
If you wan’t to bump up the memory to the maximum you could install two 8GB modules for a total of 16GB which is the maximum supported by the motherboard in this build. Since memory prices are pretty low right now you can actually pick up a pair of 8GB modules for less than $150.
Hard Drive – Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7200RPM SATA 6 Gb/s NCQ 64MB Cache
The hard drives are really the heart of any storage systems which is why I recommend installing quality hard drives. These Barracuda drives are well suited for a NAS application with their large caches and support for native command queuing. This series of drives is able to hold 1TB on a single platter, the largest model in the series (3TB) is a triple platter drive.
Boot Drive – SanDisk Cruzer Fit 8GB Flash Drive
FreeNAS requires one drive in the system be dedicated as a boot drive. Using a USB flash drive as a boot drive allows you to more drive bays for storage in the NAS. FreeNAS only requires 2GB of space for the boot drive but the drive must be a true 2GB drive or the image will not fit. Flash drives are cheap and the cost different between a 2GB drive and an 8GB drive is almost nothing.
Internal USB Header – Koutech USB Header-Pin
For a more professional look you can add an internal USB header from Koutech to your NAS which allows you to connect the USB boot drive directly to the motherboard. By mounting the USB drive internally you can prevent someone from accidentally unplugging the flash drive from the NAS.
This device connects to a standard 9-pin USB header on the motherboard and provides 2 USB 2.0 ports. The ports face in alternating directions which is helpful in cases where the flash drive might otherwise not fit.
Other Boot Drive Options- Memory Depot USB DOM (Disk on Module)
Another boot drive option is to use a USB DOM which is essentially a flash drive integrated into a USB header. A 2GB module from Memory Depot costs about $50 making it a bit more expensive than the previous option. Another downside to the DOM modules is that the size cannot be upgraded. The DOM modules are very clean and professional looking which can give your NAS a very polished look and feel.
As you can see in the below it’s about $300 to $400 cheaper to build a mini NAS yourself vs purchasing one from iXsystems. If you have existing hard drives you could allocate to a NAS then you can build a bare unit and install your own drives.
|Cost to Buy
|Cost to Build
|4TB (4 x 1TB)
|8TB (4 x 2TB)
|12TB (4 x 3TB)
Building your own mini NAS has several advantages over purchasing a pre-built storage system. First of all FreeNAS provides a much greater set of features than typical NAS systems on the retail market offer. Secondly building the system yourself allows you to customize the hardware to meet the needs of your environment.
In the end by building the NAS yourself you’ll end up with a much more powerful and versatile storage system.