Review: Data Robotics Drobo Storage Solution

Drobo – simplicity perfected

When my G5 finally died after a long and productive life, I knew that it was time to seriously look at my file storage options with my new Mac Pro.  Here was an opportunity to do-over and hopefully avoid many of the mistakes I’d made with the old system.  There were so many options on the market, that it was overwhelming just picking a starting place.  Fortunately, I started with a Data Robotics Drobo and there has not been a need to look backwards ever since.

Many models to choose

I purchased the basic Drobo four bay model which allowed me to use Firewire 800 to attach to my Mac Pro.  The included instructions were easy to follow and setup was painless.  I bought four 1 GB drives to get myself started.  One of the selling points behind Drobo is that as your storage needs increase, you can simply swap out one or more drives and increase your storage capacity without having to re-install files and folders.  The four bay model allows you to expand up to 16 TB, which means that as storage costs drop and my needs increase I can add what I need, when I need.  No sense paying for more storage than you can use.  I really like that idea that my Drobo will grow as I do.

Lots of Options

There are several models of Drobo available, including a new five bay model which allows Firewire 800, USB 3.0, or an eSATA connection.  There is even a five bay unit that connects with Gigabit Ethernet.  Drobo also comes in several advanced business configurations of eight and twelve bay, if that is what you need.  I feel that most users will be in the four or five bay category, but the nice thing about Drobo is that no matter what you choose, with just a minimum of setup time you can be up and running.

BeyondRAID

The appeal of Drobo is their “BeyondRAID” software technology.  For those of us not 100% immersed in the IT world, RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) is a method of linking several disks together to get  “bigger” drive.  There are numerous types of RAID setups, including RAID levels 0, 1, 0+1, 1+0, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5+1, and 6.  Add to that a few modifiers such as striping, mirroring, and parity.  I won’t go into the meaning of each RAID type, as that information could be lengthy and lead us far, far off the topic.  A simple Internet search will fill in the details if you are inclined to know the technical aspects of RAID setups.

BeyondRAID from Drobo simplifies your RAID setup in that the level of RAID is handled by the Drobo unit itself.  It’s kind of like having a dedicated RAID card in your Mac or PC, but not quite.  BeyondRAID solves many of the RAID problems by not exposing you to them in the first place.

In a traditional RAID if you want to increase the size of your RAID storage, you have to create a new RAID and migrate the data over.  It’s not exactly the easiest method for time strapped photographers.  I would rather be creating new images, and not have to worry about all the bits and baubles needed to run my system.  (I know that some of you out there LOVE the IT aspect, and for those that like the mucking and the cables and the waiting, waiting, waiting for data to migrate:  I used to be that way also.  To all of you, have fun.)

With the Drobo BeyondRAID it’s a simple matter to increase storage.  Simply add a new drive to an open slot, or replace an existing drive with a bigger one.  Once that drive is added or replaced, Drobo works behind the scenes to get the new volume ready.  You don’t have a single moment of down time where you can’t access your data.

One nice feature of BeyondRAID is the ability to take your Drobo drive set (or drive pack) and move all of them to a new Drobo.  Your data will all be there and waiting when the new Drobo is turned on and mounted by your operating system.

Drobo failure recovery in action

Unfortunately, during the writing of this article (or more precisely, the photographing of the Drobo unit), I experienced my first Drobo “failure”.  I ejected the disks to photograph the empty drive bays, and then re-inserted the drives.  It appears (in hindsight) that I did not full insert the bottom drive into it’s slot.  When I hooked the Drobo back to my Mac after it’s time under the studio lights, I was greeted with flashing red and green lights on the front of the unit.  Only the top three lights were lit (something I should have noticed on the studio floor, as the images of the Drobo unit all feature three solid green lights in the top three drives, meaning the bottom bay is “empty”).

After the extreme panic of having “broken” my primary storage unit (I had a backup, of course, but no one ever wants to have to use it…), I got online to see what I’d done.  The online help was extremely helpful, and after resetting the bottom drive, I was greeted with the following display in the Drobo Dashboard:

 

 

What does this mean?  It meant that my data was there, but that the Drobo system was recovering from what it thought was a drive failure.  Drobo was migrating my data for me, and I could still access all my files, but it would be about 23 hours until I was “safe” again.

I am not one of those people that leaves my computer on for days on end, so the idea of 23 hours straight was a bit overwhelming to me.  As I was leaving the very next morning for an out of town photo assignment, I didn’t have 23 hours to wait.  So I did what any panicked and not-quite-sure-what-to-do photographer would do:  I shut my system down, unplugged and took my AM flight.

And this is where Drobo surprised me and won me over again:  Upon returning from my trip, I plugged the computer back in, but didn’t turn it on.  The Drobo lit up, flashing it’s red and green lights, and the subtle quiet noise of the hard drives filled my small studio space.  And I ignored it.  It wasn’t until the next day that I turned the system on proper, and that is when I found out that Drobo had repaired itself while the computer was shut down.  It needed a little food from the outlet, but the Drobo did what it needed to do without me being online.  Amazing times ten.

And now back to the story…

Drobo Dashboard Software

The Drobo dashboard software gives you an overview of how the storage is used and if there any problems.  A quick glance at the Dashboard lets me know if there are any problems or if anything needs my attention.  Occasionally the software crashes, but the Drobo unit will continue to function perfectly whether the application is running or not.  You don’t have to run the Dashboard at all if you don’t wish to, but firmware updates are all handled through the Dashboard, so eventually you’ll want to give it a try.

The front panel tells you almost everything you need to know

On the front of the Drobo are a variety of colored lights.  The vertical lights on the right signal the state of each of your drives.  All green means everything is okay.  If you see yellow, it means that the drives are getting full and it’s time to swap out a drive or two for something with more capacity.  If you see a red light it means your data is in danger, and you need to act quickly, as your data is no longer protected.  Usually this means adding a drive to an empty bay or swapping out one of the drives for something with a higher storage capacity.

The row of tiny blue lights at the bottom of the Drobo show how much storage space you have used (and how much you have available).  Each blue light represents 10% of your storage capacity.  Two blue lights show that you have used 20% of your current storage (and thus have 80% free).  Seven blue lights means that you are using 70%.  At this point you might want to consider adding or swapping a drive to increase your storage capacity.

The beauty of the Drobo system is that your storage system grows as your storage needs grow.  As long as you plan ahead, Drobo can be there for you when you need it.

Other Options?

There are many options for RAID enclosures with 4 or more hard drive bays, and while I have yet to test out many of them, of the few that I have had the fun of using, none has been easier then Drobo.  My external RAID cobbled from several hard drives was clunky, prone to failure and file loss; all things that a RAID was supposed to prevent, but didn’t.  Drobo has taken the RAID concept and made it much more accessible and user-friendly.  In upcoming issues, we’ll introduce other options based on more “traditional” RAID (O, 1, 5, etc.) like the highly regarded Mercury Elite Pro box from Other World Computing.

Proprietary dangers?

I have read complaints about “proprietary systems” in relation to Drobo – “What if they go out of business?  I’ll be stuck with an obsolete product that I can’t upgrade or re-use for something else.  At least with traditional RAID I can re-parcel the drives to other tasks…”  Yes and no.  Drobo is a company just like any other.  What if Mac suddenly went out of business?  Or Microsoft?  Or <insert favorite software company here>?  I haven’t looked at Drobo’s books, but with a solid product that has given me zero headaches, I don’t think you have much to worry about.  Drobo has been around for awhile, and they produce a solid product with a long shelf life.  If only my Apple Mac Pro were as upgradable as my Drobo…

But will it work with my OS?

Drobo (four bay model) works with the following operating systems:

Windows 2003 Server
Windows XP
Windows Vista
Windows 7
Mac OS X 10.4 or greater

Other Drobo systems include expanded OS support.  The Drobo website contains a list of their additional Drobo models and tech specs for each.

Eventually I hope to have the opportunity to review other Drobo models, and when it happens I will post the results here at Photo Arts Monthly.

The  Drobo Capacity Calculators are available online to help you figure out what you need to get started.

A Drobo is only as good as the sum of it’s parts

Something to remember is that your Drobo can only be as good as the drives you put inside.  There are lots of hard drive manufacturers out there, and not all of them have a good reputation.  Do your research and stick to trusted brands.  Sale items are usually okay, but sometimes the cheapest drives are cheap for a reason (and it’s not a good reason).  If your Drobo is having hard drive problems, it’s probably a manufacturing issue.  Better yet, spend the few extra dollars on reputable hard drives and save yourself the headache.

[Editor's note: Chris has a great point, in fact we strongly recommend using only retail hard drives for photo storage, not "OEM" drives.]

A Drobo isn’t the end of your file system, only the beginning

Once you install your Drobo, it doesn’t matter if it’s your primary storage drive or simply a backup drive to whatever your primary storage drive happens to be… A Drobo is simply one step in the chain of file security and storage.  Creating a backup of your Drobo files is always smart, even if the Drobo is solid green.  In fact, incorporating daily or weekly backups with Chronosync will greatly improve your sense of security.  An off site backup is a good idea also.  I have yet to find a good network off site backup system, but it’s on my radar.  I’ll let you know what I uncover.

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by Chris Bjuland.  Drobo images by Chris Bjuland, copyright 2011.

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