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Data Robotics Drobo - a redundant drive enclosure.

PhotoNotes.org DonationsCopyright © 2007-2014 NK Guy

http://photonotes.org/reviews/drobo/

February 2011 update. So, I've just turned my Drobo on for the first time in ages. Guess what? It's broken. The Dashboard won't see the device. If I delete the Drobo software it seems to work fine, but when you copy files it craps out after a little bit. Considering how little use I got out of this regrettable product, I'm more than a little disappointed.

February 2009 update - So, despite my generally positive review of this product, I ended up never using it. Why? The noise is just aggravatingly horrendous, and the speed has proved to be unusably slow. Maybe the new version addresses these two drawbacks adequately, but there's no upgrade path. I'd have to sell this one and buy a new one. And take the chance that putting the existing drives into the new unit will not break the data, as it's supposed to. So. A shame, really. Maybe if I put this thing inside a filing cabinet or something the noise would be tolerable. Part of the problem was I had an old server that masked the noise, but now that I've replaced that one with a nice near-silent machine, the horrible racket from the Drobo has turned out to be too much. Oh well.

July 2008 update - Drobo have released an update to the product which includes two FireWire 800 ports in addition to USB 2.0. This review is not of that version, unfortunately.

As a photographer, I’m rapidly gaining a fairly massive collection of data. In film days it meant filing away the negatives in sleeves and binders and hoping for the best. It’s unlikely anybody would steal them, but fire or flood could cause permanent loss of everything unless I were to buy enough big media safes to store it all. Still. Negs don’t really fail just by sitting around. They deteriorate over time, but over a fairly long period of time. But with digital it’s not a question of if your hard drives will fail, but when. They’re mechanical devices and will always, at some point, break down. And probably catastrophically. Digital data is far more fragile than even a load of negs, but the big advantage of digital is you can make exact duplicates of your work.

And so now I’ve got this confusing collection of hard drives piled around me. My photos are a terabyte of data scattered across perhaps 6 drives. And it’s a bit of a mess, since there isn’t enough room for all the files on any one drive. But then I have to keep track of which version is where, and so on. Nightmare, and I run the risk of accidentally deleting my only copy of something if I make a mistake.

This probably sounds familiar to a lot of other photographers, and it’s not a fun situation. Though I’m fairly technically competent, I actually have basically zero interest in messing around with backup solutions and RAIDs and so on. Running my own Web and email servers is enough of a hassle. I’m also writing a book, and need lots of reliable backup but don’t have the time to be reconfiguring servers and drives.

And I’m a Mac user, not a Windows user. So I don’t want to run a non-Mac filesystem. Devices that support Windows-style FAT32 or NTFS only are of no interest - I need the Macintosh HFS+ filesystem. I also don’t want to mess around with SMB - I want true AFP (Apple filing protocol) access if it’s a networked device (NAS). That rules out products like those from Buffalo and Promise. Now the Infrant ReadyNAS+ looked quite interesting since, unlike most other NAS solutions, it supports both HFS and AFP. Nice. Unfortunately it’s not cheap at about $750 US, and also for some reason doesn’t work with Maxtor SATA 2 drives. I’d just bought four 500 GB server-class Maxtor drives, so that ruled out that option. A shame, as a networkable NAS was an interesting choice.

Drobo

So the Drobo, released in mid 2007, looked like a viable option even though it isn’t a networkable NAS. The first product from California company Data Robotics, the Drobo is a simple toaster-like black box into which you can slot anywhere from one to four 3.5" serial ATA (SATA) hard drives. (it cannot take ATA/IDE drives) The device automatically handles the tedious task of distributing information across the drives redundantly and treats any multiple hard drive groups as a single drive. You can buy it as an empty enclosure or you can buy it in conjunction with various hard drives.

It’s basically the same as a RAID (redundant array of independent discs) to the end user, but it uses its own proprietary algorithms and thus is not technically a true RAID. But at the end of the day, if any single hard drive fails you just pull it out and slap in another one. And you won’t, if all goes well, lose any data.

Data Robotics’ marketing is memorable but a bit cutesy. “Drobo” (yes, they do that thing of dropping the definite article, presumably to make it sound more personable and cuddly) is pitched as a “storage robot.” By which they don’t mean you’ve got R2-D2 handing out your files, but rather you’ve got a black box that handles data distribution across the drives. So... a bit of a stretch. But that’s because this device is unabashedly marketed to non-technical users. It’s basically the first in a new category of consumer-oriented redundant storage systems. The target market is someone like a photographer with loads of files and no interest in or budget for taking on serious IT tasks.


Using the Drobo

Anyway. So you’ve unpacked your Drobo. Plain brown cardboard boxes coloured black on the inside. Simple but effective packaging. Think Apple on a budget, though it’s a shame about the embarrassing grammatical error on the packing sticker slogan. The Drobo itself is a matte black metal box with a nice shiny black plastic faceplate, and is the size of a large loaf of bread.

First you plug in the 12 volt power brick, which fortunately for me is universal, as it handles North American (110 VAC), Japanese (100 VAC) and European/Asian (240 VAC) voltages, either 50 or 60 Hz. I bought my Drobo in the US, but simply replaced the North American power plug with a UK one. Then you plug it into your computer using... well... using USB. Which is the first major drawback; more on that later.

The device calls itself “TRUSTED USB Mass Storage Media” on the USB bus, which is insultingly presumptuous. It goes through a little self-test, flickering lights. And then you add drives. No messing around with mounting cages and screws and whatnot - each drive slots into the machine like a video tape. The faceplate happily snaps into place on the front with little magnets. And that’s it. No spending ages reconfiguring your RAID setup using mysterious and arcane software, and having to adjust your config every time you add a new drive. It really is plug and play.

You can then install the “dashboard” application (compiled for both PowerPC and Intel under Mac OS X 10.4 or Windows 2000, 2003, XP or Vista) which allows you to control some of the more advanced features of the Drobo if you want. The app shows you a little pie chart with current disc usage, and you can also format the drive, blink its lights (in case you have more than one and need to know which you’re working on, I guess. Either that or wow highly impressionable friends), format the drive or put it into standby. The dashboard also displays a little bar graph showing the total amount of storage in your drive set, the percentage used for protection, the amount “reserved for expansion” (ie: not available because of the combination of drives), the amount used for system overhead and the amount actually available to you for storing data.

The front has four tricolour LEDs mounted vertically on the right. These indicate the drive status (okay, nearing full, failing/failed) of each of the drives. At the bottom is a row of blue LEDs indicating the current usage of the available space. And above that are two small LEDs, puzzlingly not visible when the faceplate is on, indicating power (kind of redundant, as the other lights already tell you that unless the Drobo is in standby) and data throughput (really important, so annoying that it’s hidden).

Note that the photograph at the top of this page shows my Drobo in startup mode, which is why all the lights are lit up. If it weren’t in startup mode this combination of lights would be Extremely Bad, since it would indicate that a) all four drives have failed (right hand four lights should be green) and b) that the Drobo is completely full (lower blue lights indicate used space).


Pros

- It’s really easy to use. Plug in the power supply brick, plug in the USB cable. Stick as many (up to 4) SATA 3.5" hard drives as you like, of any size and speed. They slot right in like cassettes, as shown in the picture to the right. And you’re done.

- It’s quite reassuring to know that all my stuff is... well, not technically backed up, but at least stored on a redundant device. By having a script transfer my working files to the Drobo each night I’ve got the stuff saved on a mechanism that should be reasonably reliable. If it works as advertised in the long run, of course.

- All your data is in a single pool unless you feel like partitioning the drive. I really like this, as I was finding it a huge pain keeping track of my photos scattered across multiple drives. I much prefer tossing everything into one drive and be done with it.

- You can put up to 4 SATA 3.5" drives into the thing in any combination of sizes. Unlike typical RAIDs, which default to the smallest drive size of the group, the Drobo tries to make maximum use of each drive. Some drive combinations are more efficient at space usage than others, and Data Robotics have a “Drobolator” Web page that you can use to predict the result of of any arbitrary drive configuration. This flexibility is extremely convenient, and a major selling point for the Drobo.

- If a drive fails and you need to rebuild the array the data on the Drobo is still accessible. I have personally not tried this at this point, but other reviews I’ve read confirm Data Robotics’ claims.

- It looks great. It’s got a nice simple elegant black case. Magnets hold on the faceplate (though supposedly they’re not strong enough or close enough to the drives to cause damage) which pops off to reveal the drive slots.

- There’s a Kensington security lock connector on the back for those who want to tie it down. (though there’s no lock mechanism for the faceplate, so while you can protect your Drobo enclosure from being easily stolen, there’s nothing to prevent someone from ejecting your drives and leaving with your data)

- If the drive starts getting full the the normally green drive lights can turn yellow, warning you. If a drive fills up then the light turns red. And if the drive fails then it flashes red. Simple. I don’t know how it determines drive failure - SMART status, I/O read/write errors, both, or what. I hope both, since SMART sometimes issues false negatives - I/O errors are the most reliable way of predicting pending drive failure in my experience.

- I see no reason why you couldn’t have multiple storage sets in rotation. You could, for example, have one group of drives and switch them out for another group on a regular basis. The unused drives could then be locked away in a fireproof media safe or something like that. However, I don’t know how sturdy the SATA connectors would be in this sort of situation. SATA plugs aren’t really engineered for repeated connection/disconnection cycles.

Cons

- The first point is barely a con, since it’s an integral aspect of the whole redundant drive system. And that is you won’t get the full capacity of your drives when they’re in a Drobo. This is because a certain percentage of drive space is reserved for redundant data storage purposes. And this, of course, is the whole point of the thing. Nonetheless, you do need to be aware of this. For example, I have four 500 GB drives, yielding basically 2 TB of raw space. But about 1.3 TB is actually available once you factor in the space used for protection. Of course, if I had just two 500 GB drives in there then only 500 GB would be available for use as storage.

- It isn’t terribly fast, and it’s frequently chugging along, re-distributing files across the drives through a combination of striping and mirroring. Aperture, for example, grinds to a sluggish crawl, often beachballing for a couple minutes at a time, when doing a serious drive reorganization. Because it has to write data multiple times for safety it does not make a very good primary drive, though it’s fine for storing backups such as Aperture backup vaults. I’ve bought a drive testing app and I’ll see if I can get some harder numbers for the throughput.

- There’s no disc activity LED. There’s a USB activity LED, but annoyingly it’s only visible when the faceplate is removed. Why it’s hidden like that I have no idea. I’d like to see the option of the green drive lights flashing to indicate access if you want.

- USB 2 only. This is a huge one for a lot of people, and was a serious stumbling block for me. In the end, I decided to buy it anyway since I’m mainly using it for backup purposes, since a lot of NAS devices don’t run that much faster than USB 2 speeds anyway, and since I’m really planning on using it with only one computer at a time. But this could be a real problem for some people, and I think it was a huge strategic error on the part of Data Robotics to introduce the product as USB-only. A new product like this needs to hit that target market of early adopters, and selling it as USB-only brands it as a toy product in the minds of a lot of people.

Of course, I have no idea if adding a FireWire port or whatever would make any real difference, since I don’t know if its sluggish performance is due to USB or the machine’s CPU itself. (you’ve got several potential bottlenecks on a thing like this - the raw throughput of the interface, the speed of the machine’s CPU and internal bus in slinging data around, and the response time of the individual hard drives) If you want to use it as a NAS you could plug it into a device like an AirPort Extreme base station and share the drive, but that’s obviously got some limitations.

- If the drives spin down you have to wait for them to spin up, one by one. I don’t know why they can’t just spin up all at once. Maybe some peak power usage thing? Regardless, it’s annoying.

- Its fan is quite noisy, especially when it kicks in at full speed. A lot of white noise. I realize that packing four 3.5" drives into a box is going to result in a lot of heat. In fact, the drives I have get too hot to touch, which is a little worrying. I’d be happier with larger vent openings, larger gaps between the drives (there’s very little airflow through the front of the box as the drives are just packed in there), more fan speeds and a user-cleanable air filter. The current Drobo fan is controlled by the firmware, and the user has no access to fan speed data or whatever.

- Since the OS doesn’t easily support the idea of a drive that can change size, the Drobo just tells the computer that it’s a 2 TB hard drive, regardless of how much drive space you’ve actually put in. To get the true remaining capacity you need to look at the front of the Drobo, run the Drobo dashboard app or, if the dashboard is running, look at the menu item pie chart in the upper right corner of the screen.

- Speaking of two terabytes, the Drobo has a 2 TB limit for a single pool - if you have more space than that on your drives then you have to partition it.

- On one occasion my machine went to sleep and, when it woke back up, the Drobo didn’t. So I had to reboot and restart the Drobo. I haven’t tested this issue further, but it could be a potential problem for some people. Having to standby the Drobo manually each time is not a viable option.

- It’s not a feature-laden hacker’s dream. If you want something you can mess with and compile new software for and run iTunes streaming music from and whatnot, this is not the box for you. This is a consumer unit and, aside from the ability to add extra drives, is sealed and inaccessible. I have no idea if the machine’s OS is based around Linux or is wholly proprietary.

- If the Drobo enclosure dies, and you need to pull some data off a drive in a hurry, you won’t be able to. The Drobo uses a proprietary mapping system and Drobo-formatted drives apparently can’t be connected using a standard FireWire-SATA or USB-SATA adapter. (I don’t have a SATA dock or enclosure on hand so I can’t test this, but it’s my understanding) The only way around this is to have two Drobo enclosures on hand. February 2011 addendum - this, in fact, is one of the things that has screwed me over now that my Drobo has failed.

- The UK distributor adds a fairly significant 100 markup to the price over the US version. It’s not super cheap in the US at $500, and the extra 100 makes a big difference. Though when you factor in shipping and VAT I suppose it isn’t that surprising.

- Don’t rely just on a RAID or a Drobo or similar. The device does nothing for you in the case of fire or burglary or other disaster. If you’ve got really important stuff, you still need an off-site backup or stuff in a media fire safe or whatever.

- Once the Drobo hits 90% full or so it really starts to bog down, speed-wise, as it reallocates data across the drives. This limits its actually useful capacity to a bit less than that advertised.

- The Drobo does not have email notification built in. And, since it’s not an NAS, even if it did have it as an option it’d still require a computer connected at all times to monitor it. The Dashboard application has an option for notifying the user of problems or events, and it can pop up little message windoids on the screen. However, the only time it’s done that for me (I hit the yellow mark and a drive was filling up) the windoid dismissed itself after a moment, which seems to me not entirely useful. If I’d been looking the other way I’d have missed it.

- Minor complaint: the tricolour LEDs on the front look rather reddish-orange in warning mode, so at first glance they can look red when they’re actually supposed to be yellow.

Unknowns

- I don’t know how long it takes to rebuild the array. I guess I could pull a drive out of there and put another one in, but really, I don’t feel like testing it right at the moment since I’m actually using it. From what I’ve heard the rebuild time depends, not surprisingly, on the size of the drive removed and is typically 20 minutes to an hour.

- If the Drobo dies and the company vanishes, you’re toast! Hopefully it won’t, and the company turns out to have decent financial backing. But Data Robotics is a startup company, not some wealthy super well-established firm. By contrast, the makers of ReadyNAS have been bought out by networking giant Netgear.

- I don’t know how reliable the product will turn out to be. It uses proprietary software, and isn’t open source or anything like that.

- I don’t know what their service will be like in the event of problems. If the thing needs repairing, I have no idea how easy or difficult it will be to get it fixed. Nor how expensive it will be to repair it when it goes out of warranty.

What I’d like to see in the next revision

- Increased speed, increased speed and increased speed if it’s at all possible. Primarily better throughput would be good. I suspect latency is limited somewhat by having multiple drive mechanisms.

- FireWire 800 and eSATA, assuming they’ve improved throughput enough to take advantage of this. I can understand the company’s desire to keep things simple for the consumer, but at the same time I think it’s important to get enough geeks onboard to help develop mindshare for the brand. Personally if I were them I’d sell a Drobo Pro alongside the regular Drobo, with the Pro having some alternative interface options and greater control over the device’s configuration.

- Much less noise. Better ventilation to keep drives cooler and fans running more quietly. More fan speeds - it tends to be either acceptably quiet when idling, or noisy and irritating when in use. User-washable air filter.

- Support for AAM (acoustic management) on hard drives to reduce noise levels.

- An activity light option.

- True NAS capabilities over gigabit Ethernet, including AFP and SMB at a bare minimum.

- A way of viewing the Drobo’s event log, if there is one.

Summary

My list of negatives up there is depressingly long. Does that mean I dislike the Drobo? Not as such. I just want this review to be realistic about the product’s strengths and weaknesses. Aside from the irritating noise levels and the general lack of speed, I think it’s good at what it does, and it’s quite impressive for a company’s Revision 1.0 product. It’s usable and simple, which is what I really needed.

However, I recommend it only on the understanding that it’s a specific device designed to do a specific thing. If your needs fall outside what it can provide, don’t buy one. Same goes if you want something that has a firmly established track record. It’s as simple as that. You have to keep four significant things in mind:

1) Devices like the Drobo and RAID boxes help protect you against one possible problem: hard drive failure. That’s it. They can’t protect you from corrupt hard drive catalogues. Or fires. Or burglary. Or alien invasion. Or anything else.

So it’s really important to keep that in mind and set realistic expectations. If an app runs amok and writes random garbage over your drive’s catalogue, you’ll lose all your stuff. Doesn’t matter if it’s on a Drobo or anything else. Same goes if you accidentally delete a load of your data. So unfortunately you still need to do backups from time to time. However, at least one of the risk factors - drive failure - is significantly lowered using this thing.

2) Speed of the Drobo is ghastly. I should probably quantify it with some tests at some point, but basically it’s not very fun to use as your primary drive when dealing with large files.

3) If you’re of hacker bent and want to get into the guts of your stuff, the Drobo is definitely not for you. You can’t go in and add new services or alter the software or anything. It’s really a consumer device.

4) If the Drobo dies or whatever, your ability to retrieve data from the drives is severely limited without another Drobo. Again, this is what secondary backups are for. Still. Having your stuff on a Drobo is likely to be much safer than just slapping it onto a regular hard drive, which is of course what most people do.

In summary, I think this is an excellent idea moderately well executed. It needs to go down in price a bit to attract the mass market, needs to have its feature set and performance pushed up a bit to attract geeks, and desperately needs better performance, but it’s a good start. It’s ideal for an individual with limited technical expertise, or for someone who just isn’t interested in the tedious minutiae of setting up a drive array. A small business with no IT department would be another target market.

As more and more people - ordinary people, not just geeks - start moving their lives into the land of the digital, with music and photos and movies all being stored on home computers and their fragile hard drives, this kind of semi-protected storage system is going to become even more important.

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