NAS4Free on the RC111
At our office, we use the Acer RC111 as a Network Attached Storage device. It has been running a Debian installation all this while but we felt the need to upgrade it to a proper NAS OS instead. Comparing between NAS4Free or FreeNAS, we went with the former as it had more modest system requirements.
The trouble with using the RC111 is that it does not come with any other boot device besides the main storage drives. Ideally, we would like to separate the storage drives from the OS drive. Ideally, we should just be able to boot from USB but all documentation suggest that this is not possible as a boot from USB requires one to manually hit the reset pin at the back of the unit to put it into restore mode.
We tried doing this by using a normal USB drive with a boot-able Debian image plugged into the back USB port. The RC111 failed to boot from the USB without user intervention. It would automatically boot from the main storage drive. We couldn’t get into the built-in custom embedded BIOS to change the boot-order. All the normal keys did not work.
Looking around on the internet, there are plenty of photos of the RC111 that show it having a 5th internal SATA port. This could be used to store a small SSD or a notebook HDD to be used as the OS drive. This is definitely an option worth considering except that there were no SATA power cables inside. The option was to hack our own power cable either from the existing power supply or from the unused P4-connector.
On a lark, we decided to remove all the storage drives and to boot the machine with only the USB drive attached. Lo and behold, it worked and it booted from the USB. The lesson learned is that the RC111 will fall-back to booting from USB if there are no storage drives in the system. This is a configuration that we can consider: booting up with only the USB drive and hot-swapping the other SATA drives in after the OS has booted up.
However, we went a step further to see if this would work with storage drives without valid boot-sectors inserted. This worked too! So, we can use the RC111 with the NAS4Free embedded image. The latest NAS4Free based on FreeBSD9.1 could even detect the RTL8168E gigabit ethernet chip.
The final setup is the RC111 with a bootable USB drive attached to the back and multiple storage drives inserted. The catch is that all the storage drives must have their boot-sectors wiped out. This can be done automatically from within the NAS4Free web front-end when adding a new disk.