Sun-Times – “Drobo and DroboShare”

This column was originally published in The Chicago Sun-Times on February 14, 2008.

Drobo and droboshare

Cartoon characters have it so much easier than we do. Laws of cartoon physics say that if you run out of space on your hard drive, you can just jam a funnel into the top, dump in a few more drive mechanisms from a big metal bucket, and then you’re right back in business.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I present the Drobo storage system. This $499 USB storage device is made by Data Robotics, Inc. (Drobo.com), but I’m pretty sure that DRI is actually a wholly-owned subsidiary of the ACME Corporation.

You pop the front off of the box to reveal four empty drive bays. Each one can hold a SATA-standard hard drive mechanism (which are as cheap and plentiful as greed and avarice). Just buy some and slide them right in. Installing drives in the Drobo is no more complicated than inserting a frozen waffle into a toaster. No screws, no mounting brackets…just push it into the slot until the bay’s retaining clip clicks into it.

You can mix and match capacities, leave some of the drive bays empty…it doesn’t matter. Dump the storage in and close the door. Drobo figures everything out all out on its own. Plug it into your computer and it appears as a standard, single USB storage device ready for formatting.

“Big deal!” you’re sneering, because you didn’t have a decent breakfast and my mention of waffles has made you cranky. “It’s a RAID storage array. What’s different about that?”

What’s different about it is that Drobo isn’t a RAID. Adding capacity to a RAID is a huge production.

I remind you that Drobo is a cartoon device. You need more capacity? Fine. Buy another drive mechanism and slide it into a vacant slot. Presto: your computer now sees the exact same drive with the exact same contents…only it’s larger.

Please note the things you did not need to do:

You didn’t need to reformat anything. Drobo saw a new, unformatted mechanism and automatically prepared it and added it to the pool of available storage.

You didn’t need to back up all of your data first. With a RAID, adding another mechanism means erasing the volume and starting all over again is often a much bigger production, depending on which RAID you bought and how you set it up. With the Drobo, there’s really no need to think in advance or understand how any of this works.

You didn’t even need to unmount the volume. The Drobo and its contents were “live” throughout the whole procedure. If you start a backup of your notebook’s internal hard drive and you suddenly notice that (holy crud!) you’re going to run out of free space on the Drobo, you don’t need to click “Cancel.” You can actually dash to the store, come home with a new mechanism, and slide it in.

Whoops…all four drive bays are already filled. No problem: just yank out that tiny 160 gig mechanism there on the bottom and replace it with the 500 gig one you’ve just bought.

Yes, while the Drobo is up and running.

Yes, while the backup is in progress. Drobo uses cartoon physics, remember?

Incredible, but true. Drobo stores your data redundantly, across all of its mechanisms; in a sense, it acts both as an external hard disk and its own backup. If you have more than one mechanism in there and one of them fails, absolutely nothing happens. The green light next to that drive bay turns red (to encourage you to replace the faulty mechanism before the fire spreads to the rest of the office), but your computer will be blissfully ignorant.

This redundancy does create one drawback: if you load up the Drobo with (for example) two 250 gig mechanisms plus a 500 and a 750, you don’t wind up with 1750 gigs of storage. As a rule of thumb, the capacity of the largest mechanism becomes overhead, so this example volume would be closer to about a thousand gigabytes.

But it’s a terabyte of damned-near bulletproof storage that can be expanded on the fly with zero effort. I insist that it’s more of a quirk than a drawback. To remove all confusion, an optional desktop utility as well as a long bar of blue LEDs on the device itself make it clear how much free space is available.

Drobo’s been out for a few months now, but DroboShare is a brand-new accessory that boosts it from Mega- to Giga-awesome range. It’s a flat base that sits under the Drobo and turns it into an network storage device. If you have the aforementioned desktop utility installed, your Drobo will just magically become available to every Mac or PC in the whole house or office.

But it’s a standard Samba fileserver. The software isn’t required…it just automatically locates and mounts the Drobo for you.

Drobo does to conventional hard drives what the iPod did to portable CD players. It’s a revolution that was desperately needed and it’s such a vast improvement over the old way of doing things that thirty minutes after your first flight, you can’t imagine traveling by foot ever again.

After The Show

Yup, good Lord, this was a column where if I’d been given another 1000 words I would have blown straight through them and then asked for more. Suffice to say that I think Drobo is a really important product.

I would have blown through my word count just by listing all of the advantages of the Drobo approach to storage:

1) The Drobo acts as its own backup against drive failures. See above. If you have all four slots filled, you can lose two mechanisms without losing any data, according to the company. Lose one, and (just as I said) you won’t even know it until you glance over and see that one of its status lights has gone red. Lose two, and Drobo will calmly excuse itself from the room so it can have a good, long cry…but when it comes back online, it comes back with all of your data.

Obvious weakness: with four mechanisms in the same physical location and hooked up to the same bus and power supply, an external problem (like a drop or a power surge) that takes out one drive can take out all of them at once. To say nothing about a fire or a burglary at the house. So there’s still the usual, common-sense need for backups and offsite storage, but that’s still a huge win.

2) You can impulsively and easily add more storage. No kidding: I have a milk crate full of hard drives in my office. The rate of expansion of my data exceeds that of the Universe by a troubling margin. The fact that I have graduated from shooting 5 megapixel JPEGs to shooting 10 megapixels to shooting uncompressed RAW to bracketing damned-near everything has only thrown more gasoline on the fire.

I had actually sort of resigned myself to just buying a new 250 gig pocket drive every now and then and sticking a label on it with a range of dates, just like with a 3.5″ floppy. But the Drobo is very much a permanent solution to the storage problem. This thing is probably the last “big” storage device you’re going to need until the Industry moves from SATA mechanisms to isolinear optical wafers.

3) Expanding storage becomes affordable. Adding more storage is kind of a big deal, because conventionally you wind up buying a mechanism and and enclosure…and there are big markups involved. I’m not sure that I’d exactly be happy about spending $800 for a terabyte or two every year. But hell, even on a bad month I can afford $100 for a 500 gig mechanism.

And by the time I’ve maxed out all of the drive bays, prices on a 750 gig or even a terabyte mechanism will have probably fallen to the sub-Benjamin range. Slowly but surely, the lower-capacity mechanisms in your Drobo keep getting replaced with higher-capacity ones, and always at a rate which you can afford.

(And without filling up that milk crate with now-useless drives.)

4) It makes it easy to provide file services to a whole house. While writing this column I kept toying with a “hot water heater” analogy but it never really worked. The point is that nearly all of your computer gear is making a transition from a distinct entity into a Service that’s made available to the whole house.

There used to be a water pump in the backyard of the house. You could go up to it and get water. Then water became a Service which is simply available to the entire facility.

Microsoft is trying another new thing they’re calling the Home Media Server. It’s sort of a shoebox PC with big storage, set up as a headless server. Drop it on the network and it becomes the place where all the photos, music, movies, etc. are kept. I think that solution is probably overkill — supposedly HP is sending me a server to test out, so we’ll see soon enough — but Drobo is right there. Again I come back to this idea of being able to expand it cheaply and easily, without any disruption to the service itself.

On and on.

Setup was a snap. I was expecting that the mechanisms would have to be installed in sleds or rails, but nope: just slide ‘em in. It’s possible to slide them in upside-down, but if you do, the confusion is momentary and you’ll quickly realize why it’s not clicking in the whole way.

Oh, and a bit more about the disconnection between the grand total amount of storage inside the box and the amount that’s actually available to the file system: it’s a bit of a drag, but you get used to it. When you plug it in, the OS will believe it’s a volume of the highest possible capacity (2 terabytes, in my setup) and a Get Info or Properties check is useless.

But that’s more or less OK because you get a couple of tools that allow you to get a real answer very quickly. For example, there’s a menulet here on my MacBook that makes the situation clear:

Drobo Menulet

That’s a good cue to underline a common question: Drobo does ship with a CD, and it is doing some very Wonka-like things inside that housing, but from the USB port outward it’s just a standard USB 2.0 drive. You don’t need to install any special software to use it.

Same deal for Droboshare. If your computer knows what to do with a Samba server, it’ll work with the Droboshare just fine. In fact, I had that pleasant installation experience where I realize that no, the hardware isn’t screwed up; I’m just an idiot. I plugged the Drobo into the Droboshare and put it on the network and went back to the MacBook to mount the volume. I knew that the Drobo utility was willing to locate and mount the network volume automatically but spent a minute or two looking for the button or the menu or whatever and cursing its “bad user interface.”

Then I bothered to look on the left-hand side of a Finder window and noticed that oh, okay…the software had found and mounted it almost immediately. No clicks necessary.

The Drobo and Droboshare are such an immediate hit and such a natural match that I’ll be pretty surprised if the company doesn’t make an all-in-one product before too long. And that’s going to be the way to go.

Drobo is a damned exciting thing. I really do think it’s iPod-like in its nature. Who wants to keep buying USB drives and migrating data when one $500 purchase allows you to just buy a cheap mechanism once a year or so and expand your resources on the fly, with no disruptions?

Added: Commenters have asked plenty of good questions and raised plenty of great points and I wanted to pull some of them up here:

Noise: The Drobo isn’t whisper-quiet — you’ve got four hard drives spinning plus a cooling fan — but it isn’t particularly noisy, either. Like a tower PC, the noise is definitely there but it quickly fades into the background of your home office.

Capacity: Storage via the Drobo isn’t “limitless.” There’s a 2-terabyte-per-volume limit imposed by some file systems. If you’re using Mac OS X or Vista, no problem (though read the comments to learn about how that affects startup times) but if you’ve formatted it for Windows XP, you’re stuck with that.

Speed: Drobo ain’t lightning fast. It certainly isn’t as fast as many conventional RAIDs (which offer Firewire 400 or 800 interfaces) and even many conventional RAID network storage (which don’t have the USB-Ethernet bottleneck of the Droboshare). It’s fine for “storage” but if you’re using it as (say) a swap drive for Photoshop or video editing, you’d be better off with something else.

Data redundancy: Drobo isn’t unique in its ability to keep popping along after losing a drive, or allowing the user to hot-swap an individual volume. What I should have said is that the Drobo is the only such device I’ve ever seen or heard of that makes this sort of thing actually work. You simply don’t need to care what happens to these mechanisms or what you do with them. Drobo will work it all out for you. Other RAIDs require a certain procedure and respect for common sense. Or, they just plain don’t work.