Drobo: The Data Storage Robot

September 2nd, 2008 by Andrew

I recently purchased a first-generation USB 2.0 Drobo. I’ve used an external drive to backup most of my data for awhile now, but it’s just not easy and not very scalable. If I expand the drive in my computer, I need to expand the backup drive as well, leaving me with extra working drives lying around that I’ll have no use for. I’ve had a plan in the back of my head for a few years now of creating a file server with RAID, but that never came to fruition. A whole file server seemed overkill in terms of power usage and maintenance — I don’t have a bunch of spare time to reconfigure RAIDs and deal with hardware and software issues.

Drobo seemed like the perfect candidate. It features the RAID-like ability to swap drives in and out to expand capacity or to replace failing drives, and to mirror your data to keep it safe when (not if) a drive fails. What makes the Drobo special is that it requires no tools whatsoever to swap drives, and it can all be done while it’s on. Other systems have this ability too, but there’s something about poking around a running file server with a screwdriver that makes me uneasy.

Low power requirements are also a plus with the Drobo. While on, it ranges from only 5 watts in standby mode to 40 watts with four drives installed and in use. That’s less than a typical laptop takes when plugged in. Noise is another issue that I was concerned about, but I haven’t heard the Drobo get very loud at all. I only have two drives installed now, but maybe with 4 drives running and the fan on it might get a little louder than your desktop computer.

Unpacking

Drobo’s packaging was simple but nice. I’ve heard it referred to as “Apple on a budget.” Opening the outer box reveals black cardboard inside, and an accessory box that says “Welcome to the world of…” The Drobo itself was wrapped in a soft pouch that was closed with a “Drobo” sticker, which completed the sentence on the box on top of it. Holding the Drobo in place were black foam blocks. The blocks weren’t the crumbly kind that leave styrofoam pebbles everywhere. The shiny face and back of the Drobo were covered in a plastic film that was easily removed.

Turning It On

When Drobo is turned on, it will light up all of its lights, I assume as a test. This process takes a few seconds, and once done, only drive bays that are filled will have lights. Green means everything is OK, while Red means a drive needs to be replaced. Drobo also has 10 blue LEDs across the bottom front that show the current amount of storage used.

Formatting

I installed two 500GB Seagate SATA II drives and formatted my Drobo as HFS+, meaning I’ll only be able to interact with it on a Mac. The two 500GB drives give me a total of just under 500GB of storage space, which is more than adequate for my needs. Right now I have no reason to attach it to Windows or Linux, but there are ways I could do so. Linux has the ability to read HFS+ drives, but not write to them. Windows has software called MacDrive available which would allow me to read and write just fine.

Drobo Dashboard

Since Drobo reports itself as a 2TB hard drive no matter what drives you put in it, there is optional software called Drobo Dashboard that remedies the situation. Dashboard allows you to monitor all aspects of your Drobo. You can see what drives you have in it, see your current usage, see exactly how its using your storage, and perform operations such as blinking the lights. The best feature of Drobo Dashboard is the pie chart usage monitor that goes in your menu bar on Macs. You can hover over it to see exact usage numbers, or just look at the green portion of the pie chart to get a rough idea.

Transfer

The first thing I did was to transfer 30GB of photos from my PowerBook to the Drobo. I take a lot of pictures, and with RAW image files between 5 and 6 MB each, my library grows quickly. At 34 minutes to transfer all of my photos, it comes out to about a 15MB/second transfer rate. Not especially fast, but more than adequate for regular usage. Since I only transferred the “heavy” files once, I won’t need to do it again. I’ve been happy with the quick response time of browsing RAW images that are stored on the Drobo with Adobe Bridge. I don’t know if I’d normally use the Drobo as a “work-from” drive, but it’s great as storage that I can be confident in.

As of now, I attach the Drobo to my laptop when I need to access files on it. Perhaps in the future I’ll permanently setup my PowerBook as a file server sharing the Drobo across the network. The bottlenecks of USB and the network wouldn’t be pretty, but I could see it more than adequate for say, streaming video to a client computer attached to a HD TV.

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