Hands On With the Drobo, A New Kick Ass Digital Data Robot

Drobo Power

Update: You can purchase the Drobo here.

One thing I seem to have an insatiable appetite for is digital media. At present I have over 100,000 mp3s, about 200,000 unprocessed and original RAW images, about 20,000 finished fine JPG photographs, another 80,000 or so family snapshots (including tons of old scanned pre digital family photos) a fair amount of video and thousands of pdf files that represent my own attempt to build my own “mylifebits” digitized life (i.e. everything paper that I ever get worth keeping gets scanned and saved — bills, receipts, statements, historical documents, etc.).

All in, at present I’ve got about 5.5 terabytes of personal storage. Most of this storage is in the form of USB external hard drives. The 5.5 terabytes hold both my original data and back up data as well.

This system frankly has been a pain in the ass. I’ve got 2 USB hubs under my desk connected to about 10 external USB drives. My drives range anywhere from 120GB to 750GB. Some of the earlier ones (mostly 250GB Maxtors and a 500GB LaCie) are beginning to fail. It’s hard for me to copy the files off them without I/O device errors or other copy errors, Windows disk check thing can’t seem to repair them etc. On top of that there are what seem like miles and miles of cables underfoot.

Numerous times I’ve said to myself that there *has* to be a better way. Davis Freeberg reviewed the Buffalo TeraStation about a year and a half ago for thomashawk.com but didn’t really like it. While the idea had promise, Davis found the Buffalo TeraStation cumbersome, difficult to use and slow.

So it was with great interest when I got a call from my good friend Jeremy Toeman over at LiveDigitally the other day asking if I wanted to try out the Drobo, a new multi drive home server sort of thing that promised to be able to replicate my data to make backup much easier with much better expandability. It’s being marketed as the first digital storage robot. Did I want to try out a Drobo, Jeremy asked. Hot damn I wanted to try out a Drobo.

It should be disclosed that I was given the Drobo.

So for the past two weeks I’ve been trying out the Drobo. My conclusion? It rocks. I’ll definitely be buying at least one and probably more Drobos in the future and they will replace my former backup strategy of using external USB drives going forward.

So what makes the Drobo so great? Well for starters it’s easy as pie (and I love pie, especially cherry pie that my mom makes and meat pie from Henry Hunan).

With the Drobo, basically you just slide 4 any size you want internal hard drives into 4 slots on the Drobo, plug it in, run some software on a CD that comes with it and instantly the Drobo shows up as an external drive of sorts in your system. I was seriously expecting that I’d have difficulty with this thing but it was as easy to use as any external USB drive that I’ve had in the past.

You can also use the Drobo with as few as 2 drives and just add more drives as you need more storage in the future.

In my case I installed a 500GB, a 400GB, a 250GB and a 140GB internal drive into the Drobo. What I ended up with was about an 850GB Drobo. Now before you say I’m bad at math, what you have to keep in mind is that when using the Drobo it reserves some space on the four drives in order to enable replication of your data. What this means is that your data is far more secure than if you have it on a single drive. In the case of the Drobo, the four drives that you use are constantly being maintained and checked, the Drobo even defrags your drives automatically for you.

As the Drobo monitors your drives, it returns back 4 green lights if the four drives are healthy. If one of your drives begins to have trouble it will turn to yellow. If a drive fails it will turn red. But see here’s the thing. Even if a drive turns red, you haven’t lost any data. Because some of the space across all drives is used for replication. So if a drive goes bad you simply take out the bad drive, replace it with a new drive and you are back in business.

Now you can also put four 750 gigabyte internal hard drives in the Drobo. If you do this you will end up with about 2.25 terabytes of storage that replicates itself. This is probably enough for all but the most obsessive digital media collectors.

Because internal hard drives are cheaper than external hard drives, replacing a drive when it fails is less expensive. You also have piece of mind knowing that your active data is always being replicated. The problem with most backups is that they are only as good as you remember to do them. With the Drobo, you can use it for your primary data and it is constantly being backed up as you add it. You don’t have to do anything or remember to back up.

The Drobo can use any manufactured internal drive. In my case I tested it out with a mixture of drives — a Hitachi drive, two Seagate drives, and another generic drive.

So far my Drobo has worked like a charm. It very quickly transfers data from my Drobo on my PC over to my Mac on my home network. And I haven’t had any sort of file transfer or other issues with it. It feels much faster in fact to me than accessing my data on my network through external USB drives.

Most of all though I have more peace of mind knowing that I have replication of my live data going on. That my data is immediately being backed up as I add it to my digital library.

Aesthetically the Drobo is pretty cool as well. That’s it in the photo up there. It’s all black, small and sleek with nice soft corners. It has a black cover that covers over the drive bays with a little magnetic Mac like click as it sets into place. If I didn’t know better I would say that it was an Apple product as it has that look that just makes you want to touch it and play with it. At a minimum it certainly was Apple inspired. It comes in very Apple like packaging in a sexy black box with little messages as you open it. And naming it a robot? Well, somebody over there certainly has been keeping up on their Boing Boing reading. Bottom line though, physically, the Drobo is a lot smaller and better looking than most external USB drives. Especially multiple external USB drives with miles of cable that wind around your feet likes snakes.

I’m told that they have been working on the Drobo since 2004. According to their website it looks like they are going to be officially available for sale today. Engadget had a short piece out on the Drobo back in April. Originally, according to Engadget, it looked like Drobos would cost around $700. eHomeUpgrade covered it as well. Since then though it looks like they’ve dropped the price on them to $500 (nice to see them take your advice Alexander). $500 still sounds pricey, but you have to factor in that you will save money by
buying internal hard drives in the future instead of external hard drives. Also 3 terabytes of Drobo represents 2.25 terabytes of replicated storage. You would need 4.5 terabytes of external storage doing your back up on a file for file basis with external drives alone. Most importantly for me though, $500 is a small price to pay for piece of mind in knowing that my important digital media is protected and replicated at all times.

One thing, of course where a Drobo won’t protect you still is in the event of theft, fire, natural disaster, etc. This is why it still is important that you have some sort of offsite back up strategy. In my case I still have other back up copies of my digital media offsite. Primarily, I use my parents, brother and a few friends as my back up sources. Of course I’m sure my friends don’t mind backing up all my mp3s for me either (wink, wink).

All hard drives will fail. I stuck three of my old failed drives in the freezer this weekend in a last ditch effort to try and somehow bring them back to life. With the Drobo though, a failed drive isn’t as bad as it is with my current set up. Simply discard the failed drive and put a new one in the slot with no data loss.

Right now I’m using my Drobo for all of my mp3 files. When I need more space for more music I’ll just take the 140GB internal drive out and replace it with a 750GB. I’ll be buying another Drobo when they are on the market as well though for my photos (and maybe even a few more after that) . This is the best approach to personal backup and storage that I’ve seen or tried yet.

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42 comments on “Hands On With the Drobo, A New Kick Ass Digital Data Robot
  1. Hal says:

    Great review, sounds like just what I need. The big question though — will it work with my Mac?

  2. Isn’t this just a RAID device but for the home consumer market?

  3. Thomas Hawk says:

    Hal Yes it will work with a Mac.

    Mandar, the way that I understand this it is not exactly RAID technology but similar. It is amazingly simple for a consumer home device though.

  4. Tom says:

    “Now you can also put four 750 terabyte internal hard drives in the Drobo”

    Wow, that’s some home server! ;-)

    The Drobo does look like a great bit of kit though. We create so much digital data these days, that most people don’t think about archiving. Drobo seems like a great idea.

  5. 54m says:

    I am pretty statisfied with my Buffalo Terrastation. It’s really a bit slow. But I think that’s because I use only 100MB Ethernet.

  6. Duncan says:

    Its pretty cool, but they’ve crippled it by not putting an ethernet port on it. Almost perfect, but not quite there, and the price is a bit steep for the box on its own. If it had ethernet then I’d have one tho.

  7. Christer says:

    Thomas, one word for you:
    Windows Home Server!

    (or was that tree words?)

  8. schwerd says:

    Sounds like a great home server. I own an Infrant home server. having not seen a Drobo, and you didn’t mention, I can’t directly compare….but Infrant has gigabit ethernet which makes it much faster and more usable cuz it’s on my home network and accessible by all my machines. same 4 drives, hot-swappable….but being on my network makes it the killer box.

  9. I’m certainly intrigued. Like you, everytime I need to add or replace a USB drive i think there must be a better solution.

    However I have 1 concern holding me back from a purchase — how does one recover from an enclosure failure. With $30 USB enclosures its quite easy to have a spare around when a fan or controller dies and there are no compatibility issues with simply moving the drive. With a Drobo I can only presume the only option is to wait for a new Drobo after going through at least a few support calls & the time required to do so.

  10. I’m confused about how you get 850GB out of your 500+400+250+140 combination. If the big disk fails, how can you recover more than the three survivors can store individually?
    (I expect it’s probably a rounding error or something to do with powers of 2 or 10 to describe drive capacity)

  11. jaymce says:

    well, that just made the christmas list… but i am not sure i can wait.

  12. Allan says:

    It does sound really cool, but like others have said, it really needs ethernet. Or firewire.

  13. John Meyer says:

    Cool, a cheaper hardware alternative to RAID. But I have to agree that not being able to go NAS takes a big bite out of the coolness.

    For recovering data from a dying hard drive, try Spinrite. Turn it loose on the bad drive, come back later (a couple hours or a couple days, depending on the drive’s size and how bad it is), and the drive will almost always be back to normal (although obviously you would still want to replace the drive). At $79 it isn’t what most people consider cheap, but for what it does, especially compared to the prices you can pay to have your data professionally recovered, it’s worth its weght in gold.

  14. Wonder what the MTBF is on this deal? and whether it’s only as good as the worst drive in the device?

    If it’s striping across all those volumes… that might not be such a good thing in the long run.

    And, a NAS version of it would be HOT!

  15. mika says:

    If 4 750G drives add to 2.25T of storage, it’s definately RAID5, which means you have 750*(n-1) Gigs of space if you use n disks. And yes, you can use RAID5 with 2 drives.

  16. Paul Traina says:

    I’ve been using the Infrant ReadyNAS boxes for a few years and played with the Drobo back in April. The thing I _love_ about having NAS is universal access. I’ve recently ditched all my desktop PCs in favor of a Macbook Pro and my laptop is my primary photo processing machine . I can access the NAS stored files anywhere in the world, whether at my desk via GigE or bedroom via WiFi or at a location. That’s so damn nice, especially with Aperture’s offline photo management and iTunes being able to keep multiple libraries. (Now if they just made 750gb 2″ disks…)

    But the drobo’s nice for file transfer speed and pure simplicity. Nice review.

  17. Bushi says:

    The microsoft home server actually seems like a really good option in this category. You can scale the storage pretty much infinitely and the file system performance is smoking fast (I get near Gigabit performance on my lan with it).
    MAc, linux whatever can just mount the system through samba and it works like a charm.
    It also runs reaaly well on some pretty outdated hardware, so if you have a old box sitting around grab the RTM version and plug in some drives and go.
    The backup stuff is nice to, nags the wife to back up to the network and in my one test the restore was flawless.

  18. That will have to go on my wish list.

  19. Sean says:

    Nice writeup Thomas. Might have to look into that one. I’m drowning in RAW files…

  20. QT Luong says:

    It’s not exactly RAID 5 since you can use drives of various capacities, while with RAID 5, all your drives need to have identical capacities.

    One of main concerns is speed, since USB 2 (at least on the Mac) is slower than FW 400, which in turn is slower than FW 800 and eSATA.

  21. CJPhoto says:

    This appears to be very similar to Microsoft Windows Home Server but without some of the functionality that this will finally have.

    Home Serve is meant to be released later in the year and the HP version even looks similar to the Drobo. However, it will connect to your router and will be accessable from the internet.

    I think I will wait to see what the home server has to offer once it is finally released.

  22. Jason says:

    It’s not exactly RAID 5 since you can use drives of various capacities, while with RAID 5, all your drives need to have identical capacities.

    Not true at all. You can have an number of variations in RAID 5, but the maximum capacity of the drives is set to the smallest drive (e.g., 750gb, 500gb, 250gb, 150gb…..RAID will treat each drive as 150GB, giving you only 450gb as a RAID 5)

  23. Using the Drobo, if I want to upgrade a drive to a larger capacity, all I have to do is swap in a new drive and that’s it? Is this true?

    What if I want to upgrade all of the drives in the Drobo? Would I have to somehow back the whole Drobo up first?

  24. dadesigns4u says:

    FYI – For anyone looking to buy a drobo, the discount code / coupon REFDANA will save you $25 at their online store (drobostore.com) through July 31

  25. Lewis says:

    Good idea, but then they mess it up by making it USB. This device just BEGS to be a NAS box. I wonder what throughput you an get with it in USB highspeed mode?

  26. Dayhlak says:

    “Not true at all. You can have an number of variations in RAID 5, but the maximum capacity of the drives is set to the smallest drive (e.g., 750gb, 500gb, 250gb, 150gb…..RAID will treat each drive as 150GB, giving you only 450gb as a RAID 5)”

    for the drobo you would actually get about 845gb, because it uses 466gb for protection and 231gb for future expansion. (used the drobulator the drobo calculator and had to change the 150 to 160). if you want to change all the drive all you have to do is swap out one drive at a time and you can change all of them. you check out more info at http://www.drobo.com, i suggest you watch their vid, very cool.

  27. paul says:

    Hi, ive got a drobo and xp pc too, it really is great.

  28. Radiant says:

    I just purchased a drobo at drobostore.com. I found a discount code off the internet.

    if you go there, enter ACNCHE in the box and you will get $50 off the price of a drobo unit, with or without drives!

    I can’t wait for my drobo. t hanks for a great review!!