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October 04, 2004

NasLite Review

Since my windows file server had an unrecoverable crash last week, I've been looking for a good inexpensive solution for storing all our video content. I recently found NasLite 1.x, from ServerElements.com. NasLite is a very simple file server linux distribution that fits on a single floppy. If you have some old computers laying around, NasLite can bring them back to their old glory.

NasLite lets you take any old computer (486DX and above) and turns it into a simple file server. Since file serving takes up very little processing speed as opposed to network speed or hard drive speed, almost any old computer will work. It just needs support for PCI and IDE, and since it uses a floppy to boot, you can toss your CDROM drive and attach 4 disk drives to be served. You need to place a Ethernet card on the PCI bus, but NasLite supports many of the common brands out there.

Almost miraculously, NasLite can cope with new large hard drives that typically can't be supported by older machines. NasLite bypasses the bios and talks directly with the drive, so that old Pentium machine can serve a terabyte of video without much of a fuss. Once I got the floppy created, it literally took less than 5 minutes to set up the system.

Naslite has three variants which can serve up data in three different ways. For Windows users, Samba is the way to go since it will make your Naslite server look like a typical windows server. If you are using Linux, you could also use NFS, or if you prefer, you can set up the server to use FTP. You can administer the server using telnet (or directly from the machine itself) and it also comes with a web server so you can access the logs for errors and usage.

There are definitely limitations to the software. There are absolutely no security features so anyone can add, view, or remove data from the server, making it is a lousy solution for businesses. NasLite only supports ext2 file format (don't worry if you don't know what this is) which means if the server goes down unexpectedly, the next time it boots it will check each disk for errors easily taking a couple hours if you have 4 large disks. It also serves up the drives as four separate shares instead of one big one, so you'll have to structure your video library accordingly. Finally, NasLite uses some older technology and you are limited to a file size of 4gig or less, which can be a problem if you are storing large MPEG2 video files.

I had a few problems setting the thing up. The biggest trick for Windows users is creating the bootable floppy. Naslite uses a floppy format that can pack in 1.7Megs into a 1.44Meg floppy, but even though I googled up some suggestions that certain tools would work to create the floppy, I had little success. I ended up booting my computer with Knoppix, which is a bootable version of Linux that fits on a CD, and then creating the floppy that way. You have the option of ordering a floppy or you could pay to download a CD creator app, both of which are very reasonably priced options.

If you do use Knoppix, click on the terminal icon on the bottom bar and type the following (assuming you want the smb version):

cd /tmp
wget http://www.serverelements.com/bin/NASLite-SMB.img.gz
gunzip NASLite-SMB.img.gz
fdformat /dev/fd0u1722
dd if=NASLite-SMB.img of=/dev/fd0u1722

I had some problems with NasLite finding my Ethernet card, and I believe the problem was that the card wasn't in the first PCI slot. If you have a problem with NasLite finding the card, I'd recommend juggling the PCI cards to make it the first one.

I found my oldest computer a little slow for my taste. My network is all 100Mbit, and with my Pentium Pro 32Meg system, I was able to download movies at 500KB speeds (5Mbit) which is adequate for serving one large video feed, but I wanted to make sure I could serve at least two movies simultaneously and 5Mbit is pushing it.

I tried NasListe on a Celeron 500 system with 512Meg of RAM, and was able to get much better speeds: 3MB (30Mbit). I think the difference between the two systems was likely memory instead of CPU, but I didn't look into it any further. Upload speeds are about the same, although it bounces between really fast and really slow and it looks like it doesn't do a good job caching, but from reading their forums, it looks like they are working on a better solution.

If you have an old computer lying around, I'd highly recommend NasLite. It can give that old clunker a new life, and with hard drive prices so low, you can build a terabyte server for next to nothing.

Other Links: Michael Horowitz's NasLite Review and Tips

UPDATE: Based on comments of Stranger, Windows users can try RawWrite Win to create the floppies without using Knoppix. It's worth it since downloading the 700MB Knoppix CD can be time consuming.

Posted on October 04, 2004

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Comments

You mention about having difficulties creating the floppy disk image.
From windows, you can use rawritewin to write a floppy image to a floppy disk. There are other versions of the same - rawrite from DOS or command prompt which will do the same.

-Stranger

Posted by: Stranger at October 10, 2004 06:23 AM

Stranger,

Thanks for the tip. I did actually try rawwrite, but I think most likely I didn't do it correctly because I had problems booting up with the floppies it created.

I'll update the entry to point folks to it.

Posted by: Will at October 10, 2004 10:20 PM

I tried making NASLite and went to A; drive to see if it was there and nothing happened accept the format disk thing came up. So how do you check if it worked

Posted by: Clinton at February 25, 2006 05:14 AM

You have to try to boot off it. Windows can't read the linux/unix filesystem the disk uses.

Posted by: at May 25, 2006 02:41 PM

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