ZFS powered NAS, ultimate alternative to Drobo + Droboshare [Complete Guide]

There is a newer version of this build. Check it out!

I apologize to everyone for the looooonnnggg wait for this post. I have swapped out a few hardware components as well as OS for this NAS build. It wasn’t all pretty… and at times it felt frustrating… However, my NAS box and I have lived to tell the story.
In this post I will walk you through each step of the building process, so you won’t make the same mistakes I did. I have written two other posts detailing the thought-process on some of the choices, but for your convenience I’ll sum everything up in this one post.

The Goal
The story here is simple – we are building a DIY storage appliance that is not only FASTER but CHEAPER than the Drobo. I have owned a 2nd generation Drobo for about 8 months. For the most part, it did its job. However, all the weakness of the device surfaced when I dug into the world of Network Attached Storage or simply NAS. I have written about my attempts to put the Drobo on my LAN …   http://frankleng.me/2010/02/11/droboshare-alternatives-tonidoplug-gigabit-switch/ I did not want to spend another $200 for the Droboshare! That setup worked for the most part, but performance was not even close to production-worthy.
I mean try to live with a 4TB NAS that transferred at 3-5MB/s… which is actually on par with Droboshare’s throughput… need I say more?

What I needed was:

  1. Energy efficient, lower powered machine. (It’s a NAS after all, not a media center)
  2. Able to let me swap a drive when it fails, and not lose data.
  3. Able to expand, swapped out the smallest drive and replace with a larger drive.
  4. Costs a lot less than $350USD. (that’s the price of the Drobo, not including drives)
  5. Easily manageable, settings can be tweaked and system status can be monitored.
  6. Speed, Speed, Speed. Must be able to sustain Gigabit throughput, even for larger files.

The Facts
Most BYOD (Bring Your Own Drives) storage devices on the market today do NOT offer the features that the Drobo does. The Drobo was never designed as a NAS, but rather a DAS (Directly Attached Storage), and it did that job fairly well. So if you are an average user who favour ease-of-use than anything else… then read no more… you are better off with the Drobo. However, if you are like me and you want that blazing fast performance for the smallest price tag… you have found the right place. =)

NAS devices are computers too. The basic rules do apply – the faster the chipset the faster the throughput; the more RAM the better, etc.

Lastly, and most importantly NAS devices’ throughput depend largely on caching and the CPU’s ability to translate between different storage and communication protocols.

Intel D510MO

The Hardware

It is really quite difficult to find a blazing fast computer by today’s standard without killing your electricity bill. Most high end processors run 100W + and even lower end chips easily go over 40W (That’s almost the same as the Drobo’s power consumption with 4 drives inserted… so it’s quite a lot for a single chip!) Thankfully, Intel created the Atom series of processors. Originally made for netbooks and mobile devices, the Atom series chips are Intel’s smallest and greenest – consume only about 10W. You can buy Atom from most local computer stores, but note that they are bundled with a motherboard and not sold separately.

I picked the latest generation, and the fastest Dual-Core Atom chip -D510 @ 1.66GHZ. This chip gives the equivalent performance of a Single-Core Celeron running at 900-1000MHZ but uses 1/4 of the power, TDP rated at 13W. Because the chip is so new, very few motherboard manufacturers have them shipped to stores. I grabbed the Intel D510MO motherboard bundle for $80 CAD.(It was the cheapest option I found, and had the same features as the more expensive ASUS and Supermicro boards).

The D510MO takes DDR2 memory, and  I happened to have two 1GB sticks. Obviously the more the better, DDR2 RAM sticks are super cheap nowadays and you don’t need the fancy ones. 2GB RAM – $30


Modded PCI SATA Controller

I want to talk about add-on cards because you will need one for this build. Like most Mini-ITX boards, the D510MO only has 2 onboard SATA ports and it’s not enough to have a more robust ZFS setup. Therefore, I searched online and bought a PCI-X/PCI SATA II controller card and gave me two more internal SATA ports. Later, I modded one of the the eSATA ports to SATA by replacing the connector head. The card was the SYBA SD-SATA2-2E2I – $36. There is a 4 SATA port version of the card, but I wasn’t able to find one at the store. I also liked the idea of having an eSATA port.


I went through 2 cases for this build. I originally bought the Chenbro ES34069 because it had 4 swappable drive bays. However, the proprietary power supply, the lack of space in the case and noise from the case fans(fans were not user replaceable as far as I could tell) eventually made me return the purchase.

The case requirement here is simple, find a small case (mATX or mini-ITX) that has 4 drive bays. Do note that besides the Chenbro case, there really isn’t an alternative that has swappable bays. So go spend the $200 and buy it if you want ease of access. The case I ended up using was the Antec NSK-2480 – $100. It has plenty of space for the two 5.25′ and 3.25′ bays and a 380W standard power supply. It has the best cooling arrangement I have ever seen in a media center case. Head over to SilentPcReview for some professional opinions.

Antec NSK2480
Antec NSK2480

I also considered the NSK 1380 case, but spacing arrangement inside the case was nowhere near what the NSK 2480 had. However, the first does have much smaller dimensions.

Antec NSK1380
Antec NSK1380

First of all, you will need a set of drives to store data and one other drive to host the OS. I have purchased 4 WD Green 2TB 5400rpm drives because they are quiet, efficient and more than fast enough for a NAS. However, do know that you will need at least 3 drives to take full advantage of ZFS. Also, the current version of ZFS does not allow you to add physical drives to an existing ZFS pool. Although you will be able to REPLACE one of the four drives for a bigger one, adding a 5th drive without rebuilding is not possible at the moment. This means if you started out with 4 drives, you will always have 4 unless you recreate your logic pool and lose all the data in the process.

I guess this is the only spot where Drobo may have an edge over our ZFS build. You can add more drives into the Drobo at any time until the slots are full. I believe Drobo accomplishes this by pre-populating its storage pool with virtual devices, and a virtual total size. That way, any new drive can just slide into these pre-made virtual slots without affecting the storage pool as a whole. Lastly, the ZFS development team has plans to resolve this limitation in the near future. So let’s stay tuned.

For the OS drive I decided to use USB sticks. They are much cheaper and much more energy efficient than having another disk spinning at 5400rpm to keep the system running. I used a USB port expansion cable to make use the connector on the motherboard and keep the sticks inside the case. Check out the picture and you’ll know what I mean. =p

Adapter with dual USB sticks

The D510MO board does not have an IDE port to hook up a CD-ROM drive. It does support booting from USB. However, most OSes do not offer a .usb image for install. Therefore, I purchased an IDE to USB adapter so I could boot from my DVD drive. My IDE to SATA adapter was not recognized by BIOS for some reason… so please be aware if you are thinking about getting one of these things. It’s safer to get a SATA optical drive instead. I see them on sale now for under $20. Anyway, since FreeNAS supports USB images, there was no need for any additional accessories. (Note: Other OSes mentioned above will require a optical drive to install.)

Total cost: $246 (shipping included, taxes not included)

Next up… the software.  Turn the page.  =p

  • eric

    Hi Frank,

    I think you missed my comment.

  • http://www.frankleng.me Frank Leng

    oh sorry about that. I got the case from NCIX.com
    they are Canadian but also have a US site.

  • eric

    Thanks. I never ordered anything from NCIX before, but I’ve heard of them before.

    Thanks for letting me know :)

    I think I might just get the Fractal Design Define R3 :)

  • Pingback: Review – HP Microserver « Chris Swan's Weblog()

  • gcs8

    i got feedup with my drobo about 3 months ago when i ran out of space (95%) an it slowed down a lot. so i build my self a freenas box that now holds 20 2TB drives in a raidZ2 with ZFS over iscsi for 33.9TB of storage and a lot better RW speeds. let me know what you think i will leave some links if you dont mind, its my new baby. http://gcs8.org/m http://gcs8.org/rack great wright up BTW.

  • Concord

    Not sure if you want it for personal use or corporate use.  In any case, for business, I’m using a couple of aberdeen inc. (abernas) RAID6 standard NAS servers for 4-5 years.  They came out with ZFS server using NExenta software in 2010.  Like any rack server, the fans are real noisy, at least on the ones I have.

  • Izrada web sajtova

    This is a
    great and informative post.Well, the points given were facts that could never
    go wrong. I have visited so many pages with the same discussion and topics


    Izrada web sajtova

  • Polovni automobili

    Great job here. I really enjoyed
    what you had to say.           


  • http://www.day-traders.com/ day traders

    I really love reading your comments guys.I learn a lot from you.

    Thank you so much.



  • mobi

    Thanks for a great article, I’m now fully signed up to freenas! I’m using the Asus E35M1-M PRO

    but I fail to see how the GPU is going to help with data copy throughput. Can you explain? Maybe freebsd or zfs makes use of the GPU??

  • Mbwjoe

    I think all you’ve done here is prove just how great the drobo is.

  • Burzukk

    I am a video designer and work with numerous and huge files that I wish to keep all this as safe as possible, fast and easy to access from my win7 os

    My questions:
    1.How will this virtual machine interract with windows 7. Via ftp!? 
    2. Is it possible to make it a DAS communicating directly with windows (recognized as just an external disk via esata). Would the VM OS just sort all this as the Drobo seems to?
    3. In its current state (NAS) can I just throw files from my ntfs drives at it whitout any concern and vice versa?
    4. Do you think there is any way I could work directly on the NAS from windows? Without using a ftp!? (edit files, open after effects projects from it, render directly on it, etc)

    I know you probably don’t use windows as and OS may not know all the answers concerning windows, but just trying to find answers, can’t find anything related to my questions on the web. Thanks!

  • http://www.frankleng.me Frank Leng

    It was never meant to be a drobo killer. drobo has its place. but for the people who want the best performance/cost ratio, this is it.

    most importantly. if your drobo ever breaks down like mine did. your only bet is to buy another drobo. which can be quite costly for most people here

  • http://www.frankleng.me Frank Leng

    Hi. forget about FTP. I never mentioned anything about it in the guide, nor are we ever going to be using that with this setup.

    The machine you end up building uses standard Windows file sharing protocol – SMB aka CIFS. This means that Windows can detect the server on the network directly. You will access the file just like you would with any standard Windows network share.

    And yes, you can drag and drop any file, any size of files you want from your existing NTFS partitions. 
    You will want to use fast hard drives. the WD Greens I used will not do you much good.

  • http://frankleng.me Frank

    the GPU is not going to help. I was referring to the main chipset which has a GPU embedded in it.

  • explorer

    I’ve been using Drobo Gen1 for more than 3 years and I’m now looking at Drobo S. I’m a video pro, and now with RED cameras accessible and SpeedGrade (which works with DPX sequences) available in Adobe CS6 I need more storage, peace of mind that my data is safe, and most of all speed. Do you think your solution will work?

    I was planning to use Drobo S eSATA connection to access my files. Rememberm that working with video is very different that simply sending files over FTP using UDP protocol.

  • http://www.frankleng.me Frank Leng

    If your goal is to get fast data access, then I would say go with this setup but connect the NAS to your workstation with a crossover Gigabit ethernet, so even 10Gigabit ethernet connection.
    From what I could remember, the Drobo and Drobo S are slower than most DIY setup. mostly due to the way it writes file into its proprietary file system.  Maybe it’s improved now… but I would not bet on it for speed. only simplicity.

    A friend of mine did a simple ZFS setup for storing RED footages and he used 10k Raptor drives. That worked really well for him, but he said the machine needed a lot of RAM for ZFS to really perform. 8GB-16GB are recommended. which is about an additional $100 to spend.

  • Podne obloge

    my goodness! an amazing article dude. Thank you
    Podne obloge

  • Rob Blasdel


  • marcopolojetlag

    It was really great to find this resource via Google by searching for “Drobo Alternative”.  Is the thread still active?  I would like to synch this device with http://www.crashplan.com.  Has anyone done that?  Will it work?

  • http://www.frankleng.me Frank Leng

    You can connect to the network share powered by FreeNAS from Windows and use that to store your backup.

    I have never used Crashplan myself, but it sounds like another backup scheduler with a cloud option. 

  • Gcsviii

    the secret is use iSCSi for windows so it sees it as an internal drive or hook it to a lunix box. in the FAQ some where @ crashplan they say it will not backup shares in windows but will in linux, so you just need to fine what works best for you. i went the lazy way and used iSCSi.

  • marcopolojetlag

     Your original post was written some time ago, so I imagine there are some newer components out there that might even be better now.  Would the Intel Atom Dual-Core D525 be a good update, or can you recommend something better?  Thanks much.


  • http://www.frankleng.me Frank Leng

    I will address this in the next build.  this is more of a limitation from ZFS

  • http://www.frankleng.me Frank Leng

    the D525 is certainly a good candidate if you only want to use the machine as a NAS and you can find a motherboard with more than 4 SATA ports.

    For my next build I actually opted in to use the 2100T i3 chip. It is extremely efficient and powerful. I love it because my NAS is also my HTPC and DVR.
    I will post my new build next week. :)

  • marcopolojetlag

     Wow, well I’m glad I didn’t buy everything yet if you’re about to post some new recommendations.  I did go ahead and order the Antec NSK-2480 case.  Is that still the best one to get?  I guess you are showing how to build a better machine that can do more than just be a NAS machine.  Please be very specific on exactly what to buy, because I don’t know enough about all this stuff to mix and match processors, motherboards, SATA drives, etc.  I just need to know what you recommend–I would never attempt to outguess you.  If you could include links to the items on Amazon, that would be even better!  Then if people want to buy somewhere else, at least they can see exactly what item it is and see the reviews on it.  I started to look at hard drives, but I could see there that the green drives had a high percentage of poor reviews.  What do you think?  Do you still recommend them?  People there had some bad experiences where drives started to go bad slowly and data got corrupted even in a RAID configuration.  It seems like the 7200 RPM drives had a lower failure rate than the green drives, based on reviews.

    Can you also be more explicit about the operating system?  I don’t get all the terminology yet.  Do you recommend Windows or Linux?  If Windows, which version?

    Thank you very, very much for all your work on this.  I, for one, really appreciate this contribution to society.  I’m looking forward to getting this machine built and working.

  • marcopolojetlag

     Thanks very much for your comments.  I have paid for 4 years of unlimited storage on CrashPlan for all the computers in my house, so I really want to get this working.  (I hope CrashPlan servers survive any upcoming apocalypse!!!)

    I looked up iSCSI for Windows and I found this link:


    Where it says:

    “The Microsoft iSCSI Software Initiator enables connection of a Windows
    host to an external iSCSI storage array using Ethernet NICs. This
    download can be installed on Windows Server 2003, Windows XP, and
    Windows 2000. For Vista and Windows Server 2008, the iSCSI initiator is
    included inbox.”

    What version of Windows did you use?

    It sounds like you’re saying that I will just have CrashPlan running on my laptop.  But I want CrashPlan to actually run on the server.  Shouldn’t that work?

  • Gcsviii

    well freenas is a freeBSD/solars mutant baby that has been compiled for one job only, now in the newer versions of freenas they have introduced plugins and anyone can make one, (http://doc.freenas.org/index.php/Plugins#Creating_your_own_FreeNAS.C2.AE_PBIs), now if you are lazy like i am, you make your pool, make your data sheet, setup iSCSI on freenas, then from your windows 7 box you will connect to the iSCSI target, then you will need to format the block lvl storage that windows will see, then you just treat it like a drive. 

    now some things to think about, you are probably going to want to hook this to a desktop or a server that is always on, and always at the house, i suggest a normal win7 64bit desktop with ~8gb of ram and a gig nic or 2, if you start getting a lot of data like i have you will need to mod he java engine that runs crash plan, mine eats ~1.5gb of ram and will continue to need more so i told it can use up to 4gb of ram, i am only at /~10.5TB of 35.6TB of data right now so i will be safe for a bit. you will also not want to do this over wifi, you do want to enable crc and digest check sums  etc etc, then from the host share it out from that win7 box over CIFS/samba (standard windows share) and just mount it as a network share or network drive to the other machines. also DO NOT connect more then one machine via iSCSI to the freenas box, iSCSI and NTFS do not like more then one machine writing to the MFT, bad things will happen.

    then we start getting into cache drives, ZIL drives, RAM needs, etc. i can go on for a long time about how ZFS works but it is nothing you can not read for your self and do the research for.

  • marcopolojetlag

     Maybe I don’t want to use FreeNAS after all.  I guess what I want is a server that will also back itself up to CrashPlan.  I have a small photo studio in my house and we have 3 MacBooks, plus a Mac Mini, plus some Windows machines.  I would like any of these machines to be able to connect to the server and dump files for backup.

    So after a photo session (or a wedding), I would like to immediately copy the new files to the server over the network, then I have two copies of each image right away.  Then the server will work on backing these up to the cloud, all day and all night.

    I also noticed that the backup running on my MacBook Pro started going much faster when I took it into the office, where the company has a much faster upload speed.  So I would like to be able to pick up my server and carry it to the office to run over a weekend, and then maybe my backup would finish in a weekend, instead of in 2 weeks.

    So am I correct that FreeNAS is not suitable for the job?

  • Gcsviii

    that all depends on how you use it, my freenas box has 20 drives in it and weighs more then i do. you might just want to get a mac mini server that will do AFP and CIFS/SAMBA, then have crashplain back up from that, and find your self a nice thunderbolt array. you can time machine for the mac,s or setup ccc to do a diff copy to a share. windows is a little harder but not much. there are many ways to do this, just pick one you like.

  • marcopolojetlag

    Is there another case, just as good as the Antec NSK-2480, but also stands up vertical?

  • http://www.frankleng.me Frank Leng

    I am using this case for my next build, which I’ll be writing about this weekend. check it out. it’s great!

  • marcopolojetlag

     Frank, I bought the case you’re recommending now–thank you very much.  Will your new post be here, or is there another link?

  • http://www.frankleng.me Frank Leng

    here is the latest build. please check it out: http://frankleng.me/2012/12/15/snapshot-raid-powered-nas-htpc/

  • http://www.frankleng.me Frank Leng

    with this new build. you can add new drives at any time as long as you have pre-allocated empty DRUs at setup. take a read if you want.

  • http://www.frankleng.me Frank Leng

    what I was referring to was the chipset, not the integrated graphics card. the chip is the one that controls the I/O. 
    but in this case, it looks like my add-on SATA controller was the bottleneck. 

    check out the latest build for a better setup http://frankleng.me/2012/12/15/snapshot-raid-powered-nas-htpc/

  • Pingback: High-end NAS roundup()