Top Picks for TrueNAS and FreeNAS HBAs (Host Bus Adapters)

TrueNAS (formerly FreeNAS) is a FreeBSD-based storage platform that utilizes ZFS. The fact that it uses a popular enterprise file system and it is free means that it is extremely popular among IT professionals who are on constrained budgets. At STH, we test hundreds of hardware combinations each year. From this experience, we will keep a running log of the best TrueNAS / FreeNAS hardware components. We will focus this guide on TrueNAS / FreeNAS servers with under 30 storage devices and will periodically update the listing.

With TrueNAS / FreeNAS using ZFS and effective storage tiering using SSD and RAM caches, many users will seek to create a large capacity pool. We suggest using your motherboard’s chipset SAS and SATA controllers first as those are the least expensive ports and often among the best performing and lowest power. Some platforms have only 6, 8, or 10 chipset ports which are not enough for many storage applications. Furthermore, as we move into new generations of chips and chipsets, many have removed dedicated SATA/ SAS ports from motherboards, with NVMe becoming commonplace. As a result, the number of hard drives and solid state drives often exceeds motherboard ports. At that point, it is time to look at add-in cards to increase the number of available ports in a system.

Top Picks for TrueNAS / FreeNAS HBAs

Our general guidance is to use the newest and highest port count HBAs you can find. Most HBAs on the market these days are SAS capable. Skip anything that is SAS1 only. That includes chassis with SAS1 expanders as well. When using SATA hard drives with SAS HBAs, you want at least a SAS2 generation part (e.g. the LSI SAS2008 controller.) Our previous guides often suggested the Broadcom LSI SAS 2008 was the preferred component. Now we are going to focus on the SAS 3008 or SAS 3016. It is time to move into the SAS3 era if possible.

LSI SAS HBA Chips to Look For

Here is a list of the LSI SAS HBA chips you should look out for in order of desirability:

  1. SAS 3200 (SAS 3224 and SAS 3216)
  2. SAS 3008 / SAS 3016
  3. SAS 2308*
  4. SAS 2008*

Anything older (e.g. 1068) skip at this point. They are not SAS 2 6.0Gbps cards and sometimes have issues with larger drives. We also have the SAS 2008 and SAS 2308 adapters as asterisks at this point. Those are popular and have been used for years, but we will start guiding folks to the SAS 3000 series at this juncture for new systems. The SAS 3008 cards can be purchased inexpensively.

The SAS 2008 is an interesting case. It is by far the most recommended HBA for TueNAS/ FreeNAS. The primary issue with the SAS 2008 is speed along with its age. It was designed in a time where hard drives dominated. It simply does not have the I/O performance to handle arrays of even modern consumer SSDs.

The new SAS 3200 series controllers have the least testing time on them. For arrays of 4-8 drives getting SAS 3008 HBAs is likely more economical. For larger arrays or where PCIe slots are limited, the new HBAs make sense.

Microchip/ Microsemi / PMC-Sierra / Adaptec SAS HBAs

Generally, the recommendation for HBAs is to use the Broadcom/ LSI series of HBAs as they are the most widely used. We even had issues with Adaptec 1000 series HBAs (1000-8i) and that made sense since FreeBSD is not on the driver support page (last checked 2022-08-17). Given that pricing is comparable to LSI offerings, get LSI. Leave the Microchip/ Adaptec HBAs to Windows, VMware, Citrix, and ZFS-on-Linux servers.

Internal HBAs

Internal SAS HBAs for FreeNAS generally fall into two categories based on their connector types. SFF-8643 is the newer SAS3 connector on LSI’s 12.0gbps controller cards. (SAS 3008 and newer). SFF-8087 is the older connector found on SAS1 (3.0gbps) and SAS2 (6.0gbps) generation cards.

SFF-8643 Connector HBAs

For larger systems where you will need at least 16 HBA ports, get the SAS 3200 generation cards. If you only require 8 or fewer ports, get the SAS 9300 generation cards.

  1. Best: SAS 3200 generation – LSI SAS 9305-16i / 9305-24i
  2. Good: SAS 3000 generation – LSI SAS 9300-8i

There are newer generations, such as the SAS 3400 series, but we think that for TrueNAS hard drive usage, the older, less expensive cards are fine.

SFF-8087 Connector HBAs

  1. Good: SAS 2308 generation – LSI SAS 9207-8i
  2. Good (older): SAS 2008 generation – LSI SAS 9211-8i

Again we suggest not using these for TrueNAS at this point if you can spend only a little bit more for the SAS3 versions.

External HBAs

What happens when you need to have more than one chassis? Perhaps you have purchased a SAS expander disk shelf (please ensure it has a SAS2 or SAS3 expander) and need to connect it to the main controller. Another scenario is that you need more space but want to continue using a single head node. In those cases, you will want a HBA with external ports. As with internal ports, there is a 12.0gbps SAS3 connector (SFF-8644) and a 6.0gbps SAS2 connector (SFF-8088.) You can get adapter cables, but we suggest using the appropriate HBA in the first place. If you are unsure what you will need in the future, get a 12.0gbps SAS3 external controller.

SFF-8644 Connector HBAs

For larger systems where you will need at least 16 HBA ports, get the SAS 3200 generation cards. If you only require 8 or fewer ports, get the SAS 9300 generation cards.

  1. Best: SAS 3200 generation – LSI SAS 9305-16e
  2. Good: SAS 3000 generation – LSI SAS 9300-8e

As with internal solutions, there are newer cards, but these seem to be the best value currently.

SFF-8088 Connector HBAs

  1. Good: SAS 2308 generation – LSI SAS 9207-8e
  2. Good (older): SAS 2008 generation – LSI SAS 9200-8e / SAS 9200-16i

Internal and External

Every so often there will arise a need to get cards that mix internal and external connectors. For example, if one wants the ability to use an external disk shelf but still requires four additional internal ports. We use one of these cards in a small TrueNAS / FreeNAS system. In the LSI naming convention, you will see the last portion of the part number have both an i and an e with numbers preceding the letters. This tells us the port counts. For example, our test system uses a LSI SAS 9300-4i4e. That means it is a SAS 3008-based card with four internal (4i) and four external (4e) ports. Four ports map to one physical connector so there will be one SFF-8643 (internal) and one SFF-8644 (external) port to use.

RAID Cards

Skip them.

No really, skip them.

For ZFS, you do not need a heavy RAID engine since parity is managed in software running on CPUs. They introduce another layer of complexity into the system that is unnecessary. They have onboard RAM that uses additional power. Finally, they can introduce additional steps to even get the drives recognized in TrueNAS / FreeNAS. Simplify your experience and do not use RAID cards. You want HBAs. A key tip is to look for onboard RAM amounts. If you see a SAS card listed with 256MB, 512MB, 1GB, 2GB, or similar cache, you do not want it.

SAS HBAs from Other Vendors

At this point, the supply of LSI cards is enormous. Both in the primary and secondary markets. That makes it easy to purchase replacements quickly. Furthermore, most of the online FreeNAS documentation is using either chipset or LSI controllers. There is one small exception, the MarvellĀ SE9230 and SE9172 SATA controllers. We were the first website to review the motherboard that the FreeNAS team ultimately uses in their desktop systems (seeĀ ASRock Rack C2750D4I Review.) We have heard that the TrueNAS / FreeNAS team did make updates for those controllers so that they will work better in TrueNAS / FreeNAS. Therefore cards based on those controllers should be potential options. In fact, our old office TrueNAS / FreeNAS system uses this motherboard. Other than that exception, we would strongly suggest sticking with LSI controllers listed above.

A Word on SAS Expanders

We know of quite a few readers who in 2022, are still looking to deploy TrueNAS / FreeNAS systems with SAS-1 / SATA II based SAS expanders for SATA hard drives. The SAS2 and SAS3 expander infrastructure is significantly more mature to the point that we no longer recommend SAS-1 based expander products or even older generation SAS products. This is a case where you will be happy you spent an extra $100 on a better solution.

You can see more of our TrueNAS / FreeNAS Buyer’s Guides here.

Last updated 2022/08/17