Today we have a review that is a long time coming. A few years ago, iXsystems asked me about an upgrade to their FreeNAS Mini XL line, and I had a simple request: “Denverton.” For those not familiar, Denverton was the codename for the Intel Atom C3000 series. The new chips added more PCIe and storage connectivity, significantly more compute capacity, 10GbE networking, QuickAssist, and higher RAM capacity. For a low-power always-on storage device like a FreeNAS Mini XL+, this is a perfect fit. Last week Cliff covered the FreeNAS Mini E and FreeNAS Mini XL+ launch and today we have our review of the FreeNAS Mini XL+. This is an 8x 3.5″ bay plus 2x 2.5″ bay storage appliance meant for running FreeNAS at the edge.
In our FreeNAS Mini XL+ review, we are going to show you around the unit, and some of the key features. We are also going to show you some of the customizations that make this different from a typical self-built unit. FreeNAS is an open-source NAS distribution, so one can make their own appliance. At the same time, at STH we think it is good practice to support the companies that develop these packages. We wanted to take time showing what the company did, and what we think can be done better in the future.
FreeNAS Mini XL+ Overview
At STH, we are going to do this section slightly differently than we would a review from a prosumer NAS company. While many consumer NAS devices are fully custom, the FreeNAS Mini XL+ is perhaps best described as “custom off the shelf” as the unit uses a unique mix of components. The iXsystems team did far more than simply slap together a few components.
We have a short overview video of the NAS if you want to listen in while you read along:
We wanted to start this off by showing packaging. Many of these units will ship directly to their end destination. On the other hand, many will ship to an IT office, configured, then sent to a remote branch office. The FreeNAS Mini XL+ packaging is excellent using dense foam to protect both the chassis as well as the drives.
The drives are already installed in their hard drive carriers if you order them with the unit which saves several minutes during setup. Instead of needing a screwdriver, you can just put these drives into the NAS and get going. The box is also designed for re-shipment. For example, the handles are not simply cardboard but have extra handle reinforcements to prevent ripping around the handles. If you want to re-ship the unit to a branch office, this is what you want.
The front of the FreeNAS Mini XL+ is built around an Ablecom chassis. Ablecom is the ODM chassis maker for Supermicro, but it also markets its own products.
The particular chassis the FreeNAS Mini XL+ is using is the same 8-bay unit the original FreeNAS Mini XL used and is fairly hard to source in the US standalone. Actual dimensions of the unit are 8.4” x 11” x 15.1” or 213 x 279 x 384mm if you want to compare it to other units.
One item you will note is the drive trays as we open the unit. We tested and the drive bays are standard Supermicro spec. That means you could use a standard Supermicro 3.5″ drive tray in this chassis. iXsystems is not using simple Supermicro 3.5″ trays. Instead, the company has its own locking trays for the FreeNAS Mini XL+. That is important because it keeps the drives in place even if someone in a remote office brushes against the latch mechanism. Beyond that, the front cover locks which give two layers of protection. That is a big deal for edge storage. This double layer of protection is beyond what a consumer NAS vendor like Synology or QNAP will provide, and even more than many general-purpose OEMs such as Supermicro.
LEDs, power and reset buttons, and USB 3.0/ 2.0 ports are great features behind the cover, but our test unit had an additional feature: a ZIL/ SLOG device. In the optical bay, there is a 2.5″ hot-swap SSD bay. Our unit housed a 2.5″ 480GB ZIL unit that is part of the “Write Cache” package. As a quick note, our pre-production unit did not have this drive over-provisioned to 16GB yet.
That is not the only cache available. Inside, there is an L2ARC read cache drive, also 480GB in size. We were told that the 32TB and 80TB capacity options on Amazon include this L2ARC as standard. As one may expect, the ZIL (write) and L2ARC (read) cache devices help the ZFS-based FreeNAS Mini XL+ increase its write and read performance. You do not need these, but they can offer substantial performance benefits.
Inside, the FreeNAS Mini XL+ is wired for the eight drives, all of the LEDs and buttons, fans and etc. to make everything work. The motherboard is similar to a Supermicro A2SDi-H-TF, but with a twist. The iXsystems team has added an active cooler to the system to ensure reliable operation even in this chassis. We like the use of the mITX form factor motherboard. In theory, if years down the road one wanted to upgrade or repair their system, this would be an easy swap to a newer generation motherboard and CPU.
One can also see a SATADOM for the OS boot image. For expansion, there is a PCIe Gen3 x4 slot for the 10GbE SFP+ option and a M.2 slot that one can use for either a SATA or PCIe Gen3 x2 NVMe SSD.
One of the enormous improvements in this generation is the Intel Atom C3758 SoC. This is an 8 core/ 8 thread CPU with a 2.2GHz clock speed, 16MB of L2 cache and the full set of high-speed I/O lanes (20) that the platform allows. Technically, the SoC also has the mid-range Intel QuickAssist technology.
An enormous benefit is RAM. While the Intel Atom C2000 series that headlined the original FreeNAS Mini line utilized DDR3 unbuffered ECC DIMMs, the Intel Atom C3758 supports DDR4 ECC RDIMMs. Standard, iXsystems includes two 16GB DDR4 RDIMMs in the unit. One can add two more 16GB RDIMMs for 64GB total. Technically, the platform supports up to 4x 64GB DDR4 RDIMMs for up to 256GB of RAM. If you need to run a bunch of redis VMs at the edge, you can have tons of RAM for an 8 core Atom CPU. Likewise, when we see 20TB+ hard drives and this unit scales to 160-200TB of storage, you can add RAM to ensure ZFS has all the RAM is could want.
There is another trick in the FreeNAS Mini XL+ customization. In the front of the chassis, there are two Nidec UltraFlo fans. The standard Ablecom chassis and the sister smaller Supermicro SC721 chassis both are subject to poor airflow because they lack front fans. Here, iXsystems has fans mounted to keep the unit cool. You will also notice that all of the cables are zip-tied to resist being moved into the path of fan blades during shipping and to provide better airflow. This is easy enough to do yourself, but it is nice to not have to, especially in a small chassis like this.
On the subject of cooling, our FreeNAS Mini XL+ had a unique cooler. The rear exhaust fan was translucent green. That is not something we normally see in these chassis and it is another area that has been customized to ensure quiet operation.
The rear I/O here is relatively straightforward. There are two 10Gbase-T Ethernet ports in the middle. To the right is a VGA header. To the left are two USB ports and an out-of-band management port.
To us, this is a big deal. Adding out-of-band management means that the FreeNAS Mini XL+ can be managed like a standard server. Indeed, one gets full functionality like remote iKVM features and power management features. If you are trying to deploy a lower-cost NAS to the edge and manage it centrally, this is a welcome feature over the traditional consumer NAS in-band management.
On the management side, we will next move to the software and management of the FreeNAS Mini XL+ before we get to the performance, power consumption, and noise.