CloudReadyCloudReady is a Linux distribution produced by Neverware, a company which is now part of Google. CloudReady is based on Gentoo and basically turns a computer into a platform for a web browser. The idea is that the distribution will remain a minimal base for its browser which will access web-based applications, web pages, and on-line storage.
I was curious about two things going into this experience with CloudReady. First, I wondered if the distribution would allow me to install additional applications in order to perform tasks locally, or if I'd be required to perform all my work through a web browser? My second thought was whether I'd be able to accomplish everything I wanted while using on-line tools if installing local applications was not an option? I typically have around ten applications open at any given time. Some of these - such as the e-mail client, word processor, virtual machine manager, and audio player - I knew would have easy replacements. Finding an on-line password manager seemed doable too. I was less optimistic about the image editor, secure file transfer tools, and video player.
CloudReady is available for 64-bit (x86_64) computers. The provided download is a 1.2GB compressed file. Unpacking this file results in a 6.3GB image file we can write to a thumb drive. The project's website offers detailed instructions on transferring the image file for Windows, macOS, Chromebook, and Linux machines. I confirmed my download's checksum, wrote it to a thumb drive, and restarted my computer.
Here I quickly ran into an issue: I couldn't get the CloudReady media to boot. In both UEFI and Legacy BIOS mode the media refused to start. This brought my trial with CloudReady to a quick close so I turned my attention to another project I haven't tried in a few years.
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TrueNAS Core 12.0TrueNAS Core, formerly called FreeNAS, is a FreeBSD-based operating system which provides Network-Attached Storage (NAS) services. TrueNAS Core is the community branch of the TrueNAS project, sponsored by iXsystems. It also has a commercial branch called TrueNAS Enterprise. TrueNAS provides a minimal operating system base with a friendly, web-based front end for administration. Using TrueNAS we can set up ZFS storage pools, filesystem snapshots, network shares, user accounts, and background services through the web-based administration portal.
TrueNAS Core is available as a 899MB download for x86_64 machines. Booting from the install media brings up a series of text-based menus. At first we are asked if we would like to either install or upgrade the operating system. This first menu also offers to drop us to a command line shell prompt. We can also choose to restart or shutdown the system. Taking the install option then shows us a list of available hard drives and asks which one should be used for TrueNAS. Once we pick a drive we are warned that proceeding will wipe the disk and take it over entirely for TrueNAS.
The following screens then ask us to make up an administrative password and choose whether the host computer will boot in UEFI or Legacy BIOS mode. The operating system is then copied to the drive and the installer offers to reboot the computer. The whole process takes just a few minutes.
A fresh boot of TrueNAS brings up a text console. The first time the system starts it pauses briefly twice - once while loading plugin information and once while generating what looks like a security key or server certificate. We are then presented with a text-based menu and invited to pick a number associated with configuration options or actions.
I feel it worth noting at this point we do not need to login in order to access the console. Whomever has physical access to the NAS automatically has root access and can change network settings, shutdown the system, access a command line, or even reset the NAS to its default configuration. It appears to be assumed that the NAS will be physically locked away to protect it (or it may be a virtual machine) and therefore password protection of the console is not needed. It's an unusual approach.
As I mentioned, the menu gives us access to a shell, shutdown and reboot actions, network activation, and DNS settings. Under the menu we are shown the NAS's IP address. By default we can access the NAS's web-based portal by accessing this IP address over either HTTP or HTTPS protocols. Once we get signed into the web interface it is possible to redirect all web-based access through HTTPS for improved security.
Something I noticed early on was the local IP address TrueNAS displayed on its console was "0.0.0.0", indicating it has been unable to automatically obtain an address. I tried running the network configuration tool from the console and this ran a Python script which crashed and published its traceback before returning me to the console menu. I then tried to run the DNS settings tool which also resulted in Python errors and a return to the console. Resetting the root password worked without errors.
Rebooting the NAS brought me back to the console and, once again, confirmed the system had been unable to set up a networking connection.
I tried dropping to a shell prompt which, at first, displayed Python errors, but then did show me a command line. From there I was able to use the ifconfig tool to assign an IP address and activate the network interface. When running from the command line we are warned that any settings we adjust will be lost upon a reboot so we should also adjust settings through the web interface. I switched over to a web browser on another machine and confirmed I could reach the NAS.
Connecting to the web interface starts by asking us for a username and password. The root account can be used to sign in. The first time I logged into the web portal a pop-up appeared and offered me links to the project's documentation, forum, and support options. The initial page we are shown displays a status dashboard. This dashboard displays some basic system information, CPU usage, memory consumption, the network address, and current network traffic. It's a good way to get a quick overview of the system's load and capacity.
The web interface is set up with a list of categories of actions and settings down the left side of the window. Specific settings and actions can be accessed on the right side. Often clicking on a category in the left pane will expand it to reveal more pages of options. For instance, clicking the Tasks button expands to provide access to cron jobs, rsync actions, and scheduling filesystem snapshots. The Storage button expands to give us access to setting up new ZFS pools, viewing disks attached to the NAS, and managing snapshots. There are also buttons for accessing network settings, services, jails, setting up network shares, and plugins.
Something to keep in mind when using TrueNAS is the order we do things may be different than when using more general purpose operating systems. Typically when I'm setting up a new storage server my process is along the lines of: set up a non-root account, set up a storage pool, and then set up shares or remote admin tools. With TrueNAS the process is somewhat flipped. The system comes with a web interface set up already. We cannot create new user accounts until we have created a ZFS storage pool. We can't create a pool until we have set up a vdev (a step which can usually be skipped when setting up ZFS storage servers from the command line).
This reordering of things isn't good or bad, but it did mean I had to get used to doing things backwards from my usual process and with some extra steps. However, on the positive side of things the TrueNAS interface is fairly easy to navigate and I suspect people who have not worked with ZFS storage from the command line will still feel fairly comfortable working with the project's web interface.
The services manager is pleasantly easy to use. The operating system's services (such as FTP and OpenSSH) are listed on one page and we can click a button to turn them on. Services all seem to be disabled by default and we can simply click a switch to activate them. I had no problem turning on, for example, secure shell access, and then logging in remotely to confirm it worked.
There are some tools in the web interface for viewing a list of running processes and accessing a command line shell. Both of these open command line terminals in the web interface to display a prompt or a process monitor.
There is a tool I found pleasantly easy to use which sets up network shares. Working with Apple file shares, Windows (Samba) shares, and NFS are all supported. Again we can simply click a button to turn on these services. There are extra options we can tweak, but it's nice to set up a Samba share with user authentication with just a couple of mouse clicks. This is quite slick and I suspect the defaults will suit most people.
TrueNAS 12.0 -- Accessing a new network share (full image size: 124kB, resolution: 1326x768 pixels)
For people working in larger organizations there are options for connecting TrueNAS to Activate Directory, LDAP, and Kerberos systems. I didn't test these, but the settings appear to be similarly straight forward.
I ran into a couple of problems while running TrueNAS Core and both appear to be networking issues. The first is that there is a section for plugins where we can download extra functionality from one of two repositories. One repository is provided by iXsystems (presumably for official plugins) and the other is labelled Community Plugins. When I tried to access either of these repositories an error would pop-up and display a long string of git-related issues. As a result no available plugins were displayed. I ran into a similar problem when checking for software updates. Performing a check for updated packages always failed.
TrueNAS 12.0 -- Checking for available plugins (full image size: 148kB, resolution: 1326x768 pixels)
Networking seems to be a weak point with this version of TrueNAS and it isn't an issue I ran into with previous versions. With 12.0 I was always able to remotely sign into the NAS (after the initial network configuration was accomplished), I could access file shares, and I could usually ping remote Internet servers. However, sometimes pings to computers outside the LAN would fail and checks for updates and plugins always failed, even while access to the NAS itself continued to work. There appeared to be something affecting the NAS and causing it to lose its Internet connection which was not affecting any other devices on the network, despite them using the same router and DNS settings.
Things I liked
There were several things I enjoyed about using TrueNAS this time around. As with previous versions the install process is incredibly short and simple. This is a system we can get up and running in about five minutes and, a few minutes later, have a ZFS storage pool working.
On a related note, TrueNAS takes over one entire hard drive and I appreciate it warns us before wiping the disk. In fact, TrueNAS warns the user whenever we are about to do something potential destructive. Whether it's something which will reboot the computer, delete data, or interrupt the network connection TrueNAS prompts first, usually with a confirmation box for us to check to acknowledge what we are doing. I appreciated this safeguard for my data.
I like the current dark theme. It's easy on my eyes and the new layout (it's changed in the past few years) is fairly straight forward to navigate. I like that we can manage user accounts, ZFS storage, and snapshots with just a few mouse clicks. In a similar fashion, it's wonderfully easy to enable OpenSSH and network file shares which work instantly without tweaking configuration files.
There were a few issues I ran into or things which didn't feel comfortable for me. For instance, I sometimes had trouble determining what was a label and what was a button on some screens. The design of the web interface is somewhat flat and I found myself clicking on things which were not always interactive. On a related note, I feel like the designers expect the user to have a taller screen than I have. I often had to scroll down and back up some settings pages and the left-pane navigation window as options rarely all fit on one laptop screen. This isn't a problem exactly, but it made me wonder if some items could be divided up into smaller sub-categories to reduce scrolling. I usually didn't scroll this much when using previous versions of the operating system.
As I mentioned above, the NAS seemed to intermittently lose its Internet connection. This hasn't happened with Linux or FreeBSD on the same network so I'm curious as to what is causing the interruptions.
Not having password protection on the console bothers me. I realize TrueNAS is probably installed in most cases on virtual machines or in locked server rooms, but for people who have less strict physical security it's nice to have a password standing between a person and the factory reset button.
On the whole, I like TrueNAS Core. It's easy to set up, the web-based interface is easy to navigate. The system does a good job of displaying an overview of information and options in a friendly interface. There are a lot of options which might be overwhelming at first, but they're generally organized in a way that allows us to find specific tools fairly quickly.
I was frustrated with the networking issues which prevented me from using plugins, but the tools which were available, such as those for setting up pools, automating filesystem snapshots, and working with services were all top notch. I'd definitely look at using TrueNAS in an organization that had a lot of data to manage and wanted to organize and share it quickly and with minimal fuss.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a de-branded HP laptop with the followingspecifications:
Processor: Intel i3 2.5GHz CPU
Display: Intel integrated video
Storage: Western Digital 700GB hard drive
Memory: 6GB of RAM
Wired network device: Realtek RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast