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.

93 thoughts on “Sun-Times – “Drobo and DroboShare”

  1. Roger D. Parish

    Yup, good Lord, this was a column where if I’d been given another 1000 words I would have blown straight through them

    I didn’t count, but I’ll wager that Andy had just hit the second 1000-word limit.

  2. jfletch

    He went past his word allotment and the CST cut him off, see? He’s making the point that he could go on and on and o

  3. Dave Bittner

    I really want to love the Drobo, and as a pure backup device it seems like the bees knees. But the poor throughput numbers give me pause, especially for use as a shared network device. (Numbers here – ) Seems like a four-drive hardware RAID should be able to post better numbers than what we’re seeing here.

    Perhaps we’ll soon see a DroboPro, with FW400/800 connections, eSATA, etc.

    On the other hand, the ability to swap out drives and keep expanding capacity is simply brilliant.

  4. Ihnatko Post author

    @Dave – That’s certainly a reasonable point. But I was hard-pressed to come up with a test or an operation that made me think “Crimeny…why is this drive so damned slow?” Even streaming HD video from the thing worked just fine. And the huge advantages of this method of storage (expansion and data protection) are the trump cards.

  5. Alan B.

    Great Review, Andy. I have a Drobo and initially had it attached to a single Mac, but have recently added a second Mac to the network mix. What is the advantage, if any, of using the Droboshare over simply sharing the Drobo unit as a shared drive via standard file sharing? Thanks!

  6. Marshall

    The bad news, as far as I can tell, is that in between the SATA drives (fast) and the Gigabit Ethernet (fast) of the DroboShare, lies a USB 2.0 link (slow, slow, slow).

    Too bad. :-(
    Also, what’s the deal with Time Machine on the DroboShare?

  7. Thomas Duesing

    I think I already know the answer to this question, but is it possible to use a DroboShare-ed Drobo as a Time Machine backup disk? If that doesn’t work (yet), would it be possible for multiple users to back up to the same Drobo with SuperDuper, or some other automated backup software?

    Thanks!

  8. Mike W.

    >>probably the last “big” storage device you’re going to need until the Industry moves from SATA mechanisms to isolinear >>optical wafers.

    Drobo’s got the storage thing figured out.

    This is the 21st Century, dammit! Still waiting on that flying car, rocket pants and day trips to the moon.

  9. Peter Hill

    I have had my Drobo for about two months now. I love it. Some feedback on some comments. The drobo is not a high performance disk array. It does not need firewire 400/800 or esata right now as much as it could use a bit of speeding up between the internal USB controller and the drives. You will not max out the USB 2.0 interface speed with a current drobo. I have 4 wicked fast eSATA disks in my box with about 1.1 TB of redundant storage. It is a great solution for keeping a ton of data in one place while feeling comfortable that a single drive failure won’t screw you.

    My recommendation if you want a fast drive is to get an eSATA enclosure and a big disk and use that along with your drobo. If you need a scratch drive for video editing, perhaps you don’t want to use the drobo for that.

    Also, to compare Drobo to Mac OS Time Machine, drobo will not protect you from deleting a file. It won’t provide you with versioned backup. I am using a 1 TB single drive enclosure as my time machine vault. I then can take that single drive to work and leave it there, bringing it home once a week. This provides me with an offsite backup to protect against things like fire. Other things to note, you can partition the 2 TB drobo volume. I have seen some people carve up a 500 GB or so partition dedicated to time machine and then have a 1.5 TB user data volume. This will allow Time Machine’s automatic pruning of old backups so you don’t end up with 1.8 TB of time machine data. If, like me, you have ripped your personal DVD collection, I don’t really need a time machine backup of the movies, particularly when the files on the drobo are already redundantly stored.

    Drobo does have a fairly active set of forums if you have more questions.

  10. Ihnatko Post author

    Yeah, I think the comments being made above are on-target. Performance is an issue with the Drobo…but only if performance is an issue with you. If you follow.

    I can’t think of a better solution to the “house-wide file server” problem. I also think it’s the right choice for 80% of the folks out there who need megastorage. But if you were using it as a Photoshop swap drive or real high-performance operations — then yeah…you’ll be happier with a conventional RAID.

    Actually, the best solution to that problem would prolly be to buy a Drobo to cover your conventional needs and then buy a 500 G FW800 drive for the performance-intensive stuff.

  11. Fuzzy Gerdes

    @Thomas Duesing: Data Robotics’ Knowledge Base says:

    Does DroboShare Work with OS X’s Time Machine?

    Apple does not support using networked drives as backup targets for Time Machine in OS X release 10.5.1. We recommend avoiding anything not supported by Apple.

  12. Mick Hamblen

    I know this maybe a redundant question but you keep talking about new drives. What if I were to slap in mostly full drives? Would it read the files on the drive?

  13. Ihnatko Post author

    It’ll work with Airport Extreme and the other USB-network bridges I’ve tried. Just not with Time Machine (which is a TM limitation, not Drobo’s).

    It does show up on the USB bus as a standard device. The only hitch is that the host machine has no way of judging how much free space is available. Which in itself shouldn’t be a huge problem — like any other drive, it’ll respond with a “disk full” error when it’s stuffed and the host ought to handle that with grace.

  14. Vortech

    I bought a couple of the 500GB LaCie gigabit NAS all in one drives, but recent behavior has led me to doubt their reliability. One feature they have, that I could not be without is the media server functionality. You say Drobo is right there, but does that mean that it will show up as a media server to iTunes, and the xbox 360, etc. or just that it exists as a network share without the media server code those apps need?

  15. Pingback: links for 2008-02-18 « The Fire Freak

  16. Ihnatko Post author

    @Vortech – Whether you’re using it as an external USB drive or as a NAS, it appears as a standard volume. There’s nothing stopping you from using it for media content but naturally the Drobo won’t manage a media library on its own. That’s the job of iTunes.

    And you don’t need any extra code to use it for a shared iTunes library. You can do that on any attached volume.

  17. Ihnatko Post author

    @Mick – Nope; any drive you insert into the Drobo will be wiped. Again, the installed mechanisms become a homogenous “pool” of storage and discrete files don’t live on any one mechanism in particular.

    I haven’t tried it myself, but my understanding is that if you were to pull a drive from your Drobo and mount it as a USB drive on its own, its contents would be gibberish.

  18. bubba

    the Infrant Ready NAS has done the same (auto expanding raid) for a lot longer at gigabit ethernet speeds (jumbo frames works great on OS X) for years before the drobo was out.

  19. DRC

    The $499 for Drobo and $199 for DroboShare make this a serious investment for four empty bays and a fancy network manager. Not that I can’t see the potential. I just lost my waffles when I saw the price.

    Thomas, here’s info on Time Machine and Drobo from the official website: http://www.drobo.com/products_time_machine.aspx

    Fun review, Andy. You’ve given me something to think of besides waffles. (Yummm) Is there a place online you recommend purchasing SATA drives?

  20. Ian

    @Fuzzy: Apple DOES support using networked drives as backup targets for Time Machine in OS X release 10.5.1.
    From http://www.apple.com/macosx/features/timemachine.html
    “Time Machine can also back up to another Mac running Leopard with Personal File Sharing, Leopard Server, or Xsan storage devices.”

    I’ve got a single mac backing up seven macs without any problems. They are running 10.5.2 now, but it also works on 10.5.1. You don’t need to do anything else besides sharing the hard drive over file sharing, and then time machine will see it, even if it is connected to a different mac.

  21. jurgen

    When it’s plugged into an Airport Extreme (which is likely how I’ll be using it), is there any way to check how full it is (like with that handy-dandy menubar icon thing)?

  22. Ihnatko Post author

    @Ian – But it doesn’t work with all networked storage. Drives shared via Airport Extreme (for example) don’t show up as available Time Machine volumes.

  23. Mark

    Simple terabyte drives from Buffalo here in Japan are 14,700 yen ($140). Why not just buy two of these and a copy of SuperDuper? Or is the price still high in the U.S.?

    (I see now that on Amazon the 1 TB Buffalo drive is $330. Still seems like a simpler solution than Drobo.)

  24. Stephen

    “With a RAID, adding another mechanism means erasing the volume and starting all over again.”

    what year are you quoting from? I haven’t seen a RAID unit worth buying that DIDN’T have OCE.

  25. jo

    Infrant (now a Netgear company) has serious credibility issues with their firmware. Our company owns 2 ReadyNAS 1000 units and they are nothing but trouble. Terrible network throughout, sluggish web interfaces, and shoddy network jacks. Go to the Infrant discussion forums and see for yourself.

    Yes, if performance is no concern, than the Drobo is king. I don’t own a Drobo, but would get one if I needed access to a large amount of data. But 2 FireWire drives and SuperDuper work fine for me and Time Machine is just too inconvenient for notebook users.

  26. Ed Fladung

    Hey Andy, great write-up of the Drobo. one thing though. The idea that Drobo is somehow unlimited storage, because you have 4 drive-bays and then you can just replace the lowest capacity drive, isn’t entirely true. You are limited by the volume size and until Drobo can figure out a way to make the set volume size dynamic (which I’m sure they’ll eventually do), there’s still some hefty limitations on Drobo, especially for users that traffic in large amounts of data (like photographers).

    Currently, formating stops at 2 terabytes. It’s the biggest draw-back I’ve seen to the Drobo (not DRI’s fault), to be honest I love mine, but i’m running into this ceiling now. The 2 tb limit means that if you buy the Drobo with two 1 terabyte drives and format at 2 tbs, when you start running out of disk space (after using up 1tb) and pop in another 1 tb drive, the drive with show up on your desktop as a separate partition (as if there were 2 drobos). that kinda defeats the purpose right? especially since this new partition will not be protected until you get a 4th drive (to act as redundancy for the new drive). DRI has a beta firmware update that lets you set the volume size at larger then 2 tb chunks, but if you already have 1 tb of data on your drive, you have to pull the data off to reformat at a larger size (say 4tbs). The problem with doing this, is that disk start-up time halves, every time you double the “set volume size”. So theoretically, you could have two 1 terabyte drives and set the volume size at 16 terabytes, tricking the OS into thinking Drobo has 16tbs of addressable space (and you can keep adding drives until you hit that 16tb limit and have to reformat again), but the Drobo start-up time grows. So if you have the volume size set at 2tbs, and it takes 2 minutes to boot up, 16 tbs will take 8x longer (16 mins to boot!) and it will only work under Mac Os X. Here’s an article on drobospace.com that addresses this issue: http://www.drobospace.com/forum/thread/11147/Data-Robotics…we-need-an-official-FAQ-on-the–gt-2TB-thing..this-is-huge-/

    All this yabbering really amounts to this: imagine you format the Drobo at 4 tbs. and then use up 2 tbs (Drobo is now full cuz the other 2tbs were used for redundancy) and you have to take that 2 tbs of data off of Drobo to reformat the unit, where are you gonna put the data? on the 2tb drive you have laying around just for this occasion? what happens when you’ve got 8 tbs of data?

  27. Ihnatko Post author

    @Stephen – You know, that’s an excellent point. I’ve added a strikethrough on that line and amended it. I should have said that conventional RAIDs can be a much bigger hassle, particularly if you didn’t take the time to understand how these things work and you didn’t really set it up properly.

    I’d also like to hear your recommendation of a RAID that can deliver the simplicity and reliability of the Drobo. I’ve seen enclosures that sort of do what Drobo does, but which tends to fail at some level or another. This isn’t the first such device I’ve tried but it’s the first one where I was able to swap out a drive without any sort of prep or caution, or induce a failure without bringing the thing down.

  28. Ihnatko Post author

    @Mark – The big deal with Drobo is that theoretically, you can keep filling the same box with bigger drives as the years pass, instead of always running out for more storage. The 2T ceiling doesn’t affect Mac OS X or Vista but it’s going to be a problem with for XP and other filesystems.

    Though note Ed’s comment above. I for one am convinced that by the time higher-capacity drives come on the market to make the current 2T file system limit a real limit, there’ll be a practical solution in the form of an alternative file system, some positive mojo on the Drobo end…or something as basic as 2T partitioning of the Drobo pool.

    …but the bigger advantage of Drobo’s methodology is the redundancy. As I say in the column, there’s still plenty of things that can take out your storage (theft, fire, really awful power transients) but you’re protected against most potential dangers.

  29. Ihnatko Post author

    @Conwell – It’s not whisper-quiet but I don’t find it distractingly loud. I’d say it’s no louder than a not-particularly-loud tower PC.

  30. Ed Fladung

    it grumbles from time to time, but overall, my laptop is definitely louder. i’m really pleased with it. the USB 2.0 response time is perfectly fine. it’s my primary drive. very easy.

  31. Ihnatko Post author

    @Ed – Good point about volume size limits. Important to point out that it’s not a hard limit of the OS (both Vista and OS X have no 2T limitation) but of the current firmware, which is going to be fixed v.soon.

    It seems like there’s an obvious solution if you’ve already formatted 2T of Drobolove under the old firmware. You’re buying new 1T mechanisms anyway…just spend $30 on an external enclosure, backup that 2T volume onto the new mechanisms, then reformat the Drobo as-is with new firmware. Now you can copy one drive’s worth back onto the drive, then add the now-useless 1T mechamism to the store, then copy the second mechanism’s worth, and then add it to the store and claim your new “ceilingless” Drobo.

    As to the startup time problem…I don’t see it as a problem. An hourlong Drobo start time for a King King-sized box sounds bad but how frequently will you be powering down the Drobo? Particularly when you consider that the thing doesn’t even have an “off” switch.

    Good reply…thanks!

  32. Dean Shavit

    The Drobo can and will fail, and when it does, you better damn well have a backup, as it has a proprietary file system that makes data recovery impossible from the individual drives.

    These “appliances” fool innocent users into thinking their data is safe, but it truly isn’t without some additional backup. There are no spare drives in a Drobo, so if two fail, you lose everything. If the controller fails, you lose everything. Even if one of the disks survives, you can’t read the data from it.

    As a computer professional I don’t integrate any storage subsystem that uses a proprietary files system. In the future, when reviewing NAS solutions for the masses, it’s an important point to make in the review. I personally prefer a more “complex” appliance that uses the ext2 filesystem which is easily readable on a Mac OS X system with a open-source kernel extension in a firewire case in the event of device failure.

  33. Kieguy

    I’m no tech-guru and forgive me if this is mentioned (I kinda speed-read/browsed the article)…but I’m wondering about details of how your files are interspersed around the multiple drives. Comments suggesting treating the SATA drives like floppies of old, swapping them out, dating the old one(s) with a label…but that wouldn’t work in the Drobo, does it? If it sees all the drives as one big volume, you don’t control, or even see what files are on each individual drive, right? And if you take one of those old ‘archive’ drives and put in in say, a typical single USB enclosure, and plug it by itself into another computer…does it work? Can you see its files as normal? Is the full capacity of that one drive available after being in a Drobo? Does the Drobo put proprietary stuff on it? If you modify that drive apart from the Drobo, does it work fine if you’d plug it back into the Drobo ‘pool’?

    Also, how do you know which drive is used for redundancy, if, say, they are all the same size (capacity-wise), or the two largest drives are of equal sizes?

  34. Kieguy

    re: proprietary…Looks like Dean S. just addressed my question while I was typing. So sounds like the *whole filesystem* is proprietary? So you couldn’t use a ‘Drobo-ized’ individual drive anywhere else but a Drobo, without a total reformat.

  35. Ihnatko Post author

    @Dean – There’s always a point at which a reasonable user has to say “Okay, this is how far I’m willing to go to preserve my data.” If the Drobo had my one and only copy of a critical file, the standard “back that sucker up to a separate volume” mission rule would come into play. Even so, I’d be more concerned about a mechanism failing than its controller.

    re: proprietary file system on the mechanisms — I do think you’re talking about an extraordinary circumstance in which a recovery of that nature would come into play. It’s certainly not impossible, but you can’t guard against every possibility. (Well, actually, you can; this is why the most important data on my drive is also mirrored to .Mac every morning, making for 3 separate backups).

    But the most important note here is that you work with enterprise gear (I’m assuming from your comment). You need to hold your hardware to a higher standard.

  36. Ihnatko Post author

    @Kieguy — I think I gave you the wrong impression. When you close the faceplate on a Drobo, you think of it as a sealed, high-capacity hard drive, The only time you’d ever swap drives would be if an individual mechanism failed (indicated by a red light on its front panel) or if it was time to increase the capacity of the Drobo by adding one more mechanism, or swapping a low-capacity mechanism for a bigger one.

    If it helps, think of the individual mechanisms inside the Drobo like the individual platters inside a hard drive mechanism. Alone, it’s meaningless.

    So no, it’s not like swapping out floppies, where you wind up with a volume full of files in your hand. What you’ll have is a mechanism full of gibberish that will need to be reformatted after you install it inside another machine or a drive mechanism. Mind you, all of the data on the Drobo stays on the Drobo. You’ve lost nothing.

    The line about “writing the date on a drive” refers to the way I used to expend my storage. With all of the photos I shoot, I wind up buying a new external pocket USB drive every nine or ten months and simply labeling it “PHOTOS – JANUARY to OCTOBER 2007.” With the Drobo, if I ever run out of room I can just add another mechanism inside the box and the volume magically gets bigger.

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  38. Dean Shavit

    Andy,

    I would never recommend NAS to an enterprise customer, that’s what servers and ultimately SAN is for. But I know folks who have lost everything to a Drobo failure and to other NAS boxes with proprietary file systems.

    Just as when purchasing a Firewire enclosure, you want to know the chipset – and if it’s the best and that’s an Oxford chipset, you want to know if data is recoverable off a drive formatted in your NAS when it’s not in the NAS.. If the answer’s no, then you need to backup the NAS, because they do fail, and more frequently than you’d think. I can’t tell you how many RAID controllers have failed in Lacie enclosures over the years – it’s staggering, and the data’s not recoverable there either without a replacement piece of hardware, which is very hard to get.

    The prudent move is to find out what base filesystem the NAS uses. If it’s ext2 = it’s workable in a disaster. If it’s proprietary, then best to hide the wooden block of knives from the poor sucker who has lost everything and get’s a $12,000 estimate for data recovery from Drivesavers for a Lacie Big Disk – I kid you not!

    I think the Drobo is a cool idea, but I’d have two – one to mirror the other, and I’d still want a backup.

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  40. einbecker

    You mention that you can use any file system you want — sure, but what about the sharing thing? On the website, it says about it: “With DroboShare you can choose NTFS (Windows), HFS+ (Mac OS X), EXT3 (Linux) or FAT32 (Various)”. So is it a Samba-server that can access all of those file systems and make them available to any platform via samba? That would be great news, because otherwise you are stuck with that 2gb-fat32-limit…

  41. Mr. Nosuch

    I’ve been using the ReadyNAS NV+ with my Mac home network, and it seems to be a network version of the Drobo with a number of a nice features. Worth considering, but each device has some pros and cons. Drobo seems to be best for a storage device attached to a single Mac, while the ReadyNAS is a nice RAID server with a bunch of other server features.

  42. Ihnatko Post author

    Obviously if you want to share your Drobo with more than one OS, you’ll need to format it with a file system universal to them all. I think the sort of person who’d buy a Drobo (an individual, not an IT guy shopping for enterprise hardware) would be like me…running a home or a small office outfitted with one kind of machine. My Drobo is formatted for Mac OS.

    And o’course, if you’re not using DroboShare and just using it as an external USB drive, that’s practically a non-issue.

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