Do you have an old desktop PC sitting in a closet somewhere? Put it to use by installing FreeNAS. FreeNAS is a free, open-source operating system that will convert old PCs into network-attached storage devices.

Use your NAS as a central file storage or backup location for every PC on your network. FreeNAS also supports plug-ins, so you could even run a BitTorrent client or media server on it.

What You’ll Need

RELATED: How to Turn a Raspberry Pi into a Low-Power Network Storage Device

We’re focusing on using older hardware here, but FreeNAS would prefer a reasonably modern computer. You won’t be using an ancient PC for this. FreeNAS is based on FreeBSD, so it should support any hardware FreeBSD supports. Bear in mind that an old PC won’t be as power efficient as something lightweight like a Raspberry Pi, so you’ll be spending more money on power than you would with more lightweight NAS devices.

FreeNAS runs on both 32-bit and 64-bit CPUs, but a 64-bit CPU is ideal. The official documentation says FreeNAS would prefer at least 8 GB of RAM to provide good stability with the ZFS file system — if you have less RAM, you should use the UFS file system instead. You’ll still want at least 2 GB of RAM, even when using UFS.

FreeNAS runs better when you install it on a USB drive or compact flash card that stays inserted in your computer. FreeNAS will then run from that external media, leaving your computer’s physical disks available for storage.

Download FreeNAS from here. Burn it to a disc and boot the disc on your computer. The page also has a USB image you can use, if you prefer.

Install FreeNAS

Boot the FreeNAS installer on the computer you want to install it on and go through the wizard. If you want to install FreeNAS on a USB flash drive or compact flash card — this is recommended — insert the removable device into your computer.

Select Install/Upgrade when the installation wizard appears and select the drive you want to install FreeNAS on. Any attached USB drives will appear in this list.

The installer will write the FreeNAS operating system files to the drive you choose. The installation process is now finished — remove the CD (or USB drive, if you installed from USB) and reboot your computer.

Set Up FreeNAS

You’ll see the Console setup screen after your computer boots. You can tweak settings from here, but you don’t have to. Locate the URL at the bottom of the screen and plug it into a web browser on another computer to access FreeNAS’s graphical web interface.

(You can now unplug your monitor from your FreeNAS box, if you prefer. It should no longer be necessary.)

FreeNAS will immediately ask you to set a root password, which you’ll need to log into the web interface in the future. Set a password you’ll remember.

You can now use the web interface to set things up. This is the same sort of interface you’d see if you purchased a dedicated NAS device.

Basic NAS Setup

You’ll probably want to set up some storage first. Click the Storage icon on the toolbar to open the storage pane. Use the ZFS Volume Manager to create a ZFS partition or use the UFS Volume Manager to create a UFS partition (Remember, you’ll want at least 8 GB of RAM if you’re using ZFS or 2 GB if you’re using UFS, so choose UFS if you’re using an older PC with less RAM).

You’ll now want to visit the Sharing pane so you can make your new storage volume accessible over the network. Different operating systems support different protocols, so FreeNAS allows you to set up Windows (CIFS), Unix/Linux (NFS), or Apple (AFP) shares.

Of course, some operating systems support multiple protocols — Linux and Mac OS X include some support for accessing Windows CIFS shares, for example.

Whatever protocol you use, your shared folder will be accessible just like any other shared folder. For example, it should automatically show up under Network in Windows Explorer or File Explorer if you created a CIFS share.

More Features

FreeNAS is packed with options, and we can’t cover them all. You could use the integrated user tools to set up different permission schemes for access to different folders or make them available to everyone. You could set up FTP, Rsync, SSH, or dynamic DNS services.

The Plugins screen is particularly interesting, holding a variety of third-party packages. You could install the Transmission BitTorrent client or Plex Media Server from here, turning your old PC into a BitTorrent downloader and network media server as well as a NAS.

Check out FreeNAS’s official documentation for more in-depth details on everything you can do.

FreeNAS is an excellent way to put an old PC to use. If your old PC can’t even run FreeNAS well, you may want to try reviving it as a desktop PC with a lightweight Linux distribution.

Image Credit: Rob DiCaterino on Flickr

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Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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