For years Scott Kelby and many others have been singing the praises of Drobo as an inexpensive way to reliably backup your data using spare or inexpensive hard drives, and grow as your budget allows. Even one of my mentors last year had a drive crash in his Drobo, but thanks to the dual disk redundancy feature he just swapped the drive and kept going. He was ecstatic and sang the praises of Drobo, so I decided to finally give it a look.
I’m not your average Drobo customer. Are you?
When I started to do this article I spoke with the folks at Drobo and explained to them the dilemma that myself and other pros have expressed. We need fast, reliable, redundant storage that just works and doesn’t cost a bazillion dollars. When I need to free up space off my laptop or system drive I want to be able to move it quickly to a safe location and not wait weeks for CrashPlan or some other backup service to catch up with me.
I also expressed my concern about some solutions like my Buffalo 4TB LinkStation NAS that uses RAID 1+0 because I had the network card stop working for a few days. I thought I lost the 2TB of data I had entrusted in it, but the network card came back to life. It’s a good thing too because Buffalo's support was horrific! I also wasn’t able to use online backup with a NAS (without a hack), so that data was very vulnerable. I wanted reliability, but when I needed to pull something out of the archive like a 650MB PSD file I wanted it quickly (in fact, editing in-place should be an option).
I already had 2TB of redundant storage filled, and then I had a 500 GB C drive, a 1TB E drive, a 500 GB ioSafe Solo D drive, and a 1TB ioSafe SoloPro drive. After many, many months I had all of this data backed up to Mozy only to have their service price go up so I had to move it to CrashPlan and start over. While I liked the idea of online backup, it’s just too damn slow to protect me against short term losses or accidental deletion so I needed a better solution.
I thought I had a lot of space requirements, but when I started talking to other pro photographers who are dumping their 8 and 16GB cards onto their drive frequently, I found out that I was small potatoes. I heard horror stories of 6 – 10 drives that were configured to be the perfect fire hazard and no reliable backup existed (beyond some cd/dvd’s burned occasionally for an important shoot).
I decided that I needed a smoking fast solution that would keep up with the frantic pace of new big files being added to my machine, but it also needed to run non-stop with backing up to the cloud. In short, I wanted:
- A local copy of my original protected on my ioSafe (the only product I trust for my original photos) so I was covered against fire or flood.
- I wanted all my local drives backed up automatically to a device with dual disk redundancy so even a hard drive crash or two wouldn’t lose my backup.
- I wanted redundant backup in the cloud so that I’d be covered against local theft or other unforeseen losses.
- I wanted something that would grow with me so my 8TB needs of today wouldn’t be an issue when I needed 16TB or 24TB down the road. With 100 megapixel sensor cameras and 4k video already in development, being future proof was critical.
I also wanted it to be affordable (i.e., not more than a new camera like a 5D Mark II or a great lens like a 70-200mm). Granted, gear like that isn’t cheap, but it’s peanuts compared to my life's work, so I figured that was a reasonable starting budget.
In all my research everything kept pointing back to Drobo. It was recommend by some peers and others wanted my 2 cents before investing. After talking with the folks at Drobo we concluded that the Drobo S would meet the needs of most “normal” photographers, but guys like me really needed the DroboPro.
For this article I tested a DroboPro on a 64-bit Windows 7 PC because that is where I keep all of my data. Drobo’s work with Mac’s as well, but given the nature of this device I did not test it on my MacBook Pro.
What is a Drobo?
Simply put a Drobo is like a empty computer with no hard drives. It’s a device that has its own intelligence on board that can control how it works with your hard drives to give you all the things you need (and I mention above), but you provide the hard drives. This makes sense when you think about it because you may have a handful of small drives lying around that still work but are just not in service anymore. If they fit, they’ll work (unlike RAID which requires matching drives) and the system is designed to grow with you. It also allows you to shop for the best price on drives or add more storage as hard drive sales happen.
Unlike a NAS, your connection to the Drobo is local so it just acts like another external hard drive on your computer rather than a separate computer on your network (a NAS).
Here’s a page to learn more about how Drobo works, but the key bit is its BeyondRaid technology.
Drobo has a great page that explains how BeyondRaid works, but the beauty of the design is that it is flexible and it grows with you. In fact, when I began my testing the maximum size my Drobo could support was 16TB, but a firmware update to support 3TB drives boosted the limit up to 24TB. That can never happen with RAID, so I was pretty jazzed to see this technology grow without me doing anything on my end!
How does the DroboPro differ from the smaller models I’ve seen?
The Drobo and Drobo S are effectively the same as the DroboPro but they have fewer storage bays and neither support the super iSCSI connection type (think faster than eSata & USB 3). Drobo FS is a NAS, which has strengths and weaknesses, but not what I wanted for my solution (where speed was critical).
Here’s a look at the front of the DroboPro where you insert your drives after you take of the sexy magnetic cover:
It can hold up to eight 3.5” SATA I, II or III drives, but you’ll want to use their guide to see what drive is right for your Drobo. These bays are not hot swappable though, so you must power off to add or remove drives. Due to the performance characteristics of iSCSI and the potential for heat, Drobo recommends Enterprise (business) class drives:
Sadly despite my best effort to clear my drive selection with Drobo in advance, I ended up with non-Enterprise class drives (which BTW are not refundable). Fortunately they still work, but they aren’t designed for 24/7 use so I might be testing out the dual disk redundancy feature more often than if I would purchased what I was supposed to.
Here’s a look at the rear of the unit where you connect your cables:
I started with USB to get things going, but eventually I moved to iSCSI to get the best performance. As you can see, Mac users can also use Firewire and there’s a Kensingston lock port for locking the device down (which makes little sense because you can just remove the drives out the front).
iSCSI vs USB
iSCSI sounds odd, but simply put it is just the act of plugging a network cable from your computers network card into the Drobo and away you go. It’s cheap, fast and works. The kicker is that you need a free network port, but I just switched to using wireless to free up my port and I was in business. If you can’t do that then you will need to support a second network card that is compatible with your computer (and be careful as network cards these days want to go in the slot dedicated for your graphics card).
On the PC when when things work as they should, it’s just plug and play. If it doesn’t, then begin here. On the Mac you have to install some software to get it working so you’ll want this article handy.
Once you’ve installed your drives, got things set up and have updated your software and firmware as needed from http://support.drobo.com, you’ll begin setting up your Drobo using the dashboard as shown above. It’s a sexy UI that is easily approachable, so when things work smoothly it’s a pleasant place to be.
Speaking of drives, I managed to use a variety of brand new drives that I got on sale from New Egg (some based on the advice of my Drobo contact) and ended up with a configuration like this:
Yes, you are reading that right. I have three 3 TB drives, four 1 TB drives and a 2 TB drive (15 TB) yet I only have 8.15 of available disk space. This is partially due to dual disk redundancy and partially due to how BeyondRaid uses the disks. Here’s a nice UI in the dashboard that shows you how it uses the drives:
Confused? At first I was too! Essentially the algorithm is that it uses your two largest drives for protection and then what’s left is usable. However, dual disk redundancy is just that – using twice the space for each file for extra protection so you end up with a lot of space used for protection.
Drobo has a fantastic capacity calculator tool to show you exactly what to expect when you use your drives. Of course you have to keep in mind that manufacturers approximate so your 3TB drive might really be closer to 2.7TB, etc… and you can see the impact of dual disk redundancy via the checkbox.
Here’s where I currently stand with the DroboPro:
But I’ve accomplished all of my storage goals. Of course I wish they had deduplication technology to conserve space for obvious wasted duplication (i.e., same file in multiple locations, 10 photos of the same thing with just minor differences in the exposure, redundant metadata, etc…). Sadly they don’t, so it’s up to me to do that task which I have zero desire to do.
Things have been working flawlessly with my current unit (shipped 11/28/11), so I’m very happy with the DroboPro overall.
Drobo Copy vs Drobo PC Backup
DroboCopy shows such promise when you see its user interface:
but sadly it is a very low tech file copy was very fragile. If files are open it’s game over and you’d be surprised how many files are open when it runs! If it has trouble with a file for any reason it would just quit instead of skip and continue. You are much better off using robocopy (included with Windows) than using this delicate daisy.
The good news is that some units (although sadly not the DroboPro) offer a free license for Drobo PC Backup. This is a “better than Drobo Copy” solution that isn’t so fragile, but like Drobo Copy it will bring your computer to its knees. As a result you’ll need to schedule it to run while you sleep or else find a different computer to use when it runs.
In the UI above the failed to backup files are files that are locked and won’t allow read access (i.e., the registry, pagefile.sys, etc…). The huge difference in backup size was due to me putting all of my data from my Hawaii trip onto my computer at once.
While the UI has its quirks that will drive you mad (like try to only backup your profiles in c:\Windows\System32\spool\drivers\color), it gets the job done. It also beats manually doing an XCopy, RoboCopy or BeyondCompare.
My 9+ months with the DroboPro
When I first got my DroboPro I had an old Dell XPS420 that was overdue for retirement, but I wanted to back everything up before getting a new system. It seemed like a good idea, but that system proved to not work well with iSCSI and was having some issues that made it really hate the DroboPro. While I think I did manage to get a defective DroboPro at the start, since I’ve been on my new machine my DroboPro has operated absolutely flawlessly for over 6 months now. It’s been super fast and a pleasure to use.
Here’s the drives I used in my configuration:
- Hitachi 3TB Deskstar 3.5" SATA Internal Hard Drive Kit (x 3) – I know Hitachi Deskstars are called “Deathstars” but in 3 years of using Hitachi’s I’ve never had one fail. With dual disk redundancy, I think I’m mostly covered if I’m wrong though.
- Seagate Barracuda ST2000DM001 2TB (x 1)
- Seagate Barracuda ST31000524AS 1TB (x 4)
Since these are not the recommended “Enterprise Class” drives, these are technically unsupported. I’m not in a position to plunk down the money for Enterprise class drives, so I’m taking my chances here. For 9 months I’ve been in good shape, so let’s see if my luck holds out.
My total cost for all of these drives was $938.60 thanks to some screaming sales on B&H and Amazon, so this was an expensive review to bring to you. However, with the flawless operation ever since I got my new machine I’m confident that I have a reliable storage solution that will grow with me.
I’m currently enjoying a fast and error free performance using iSCSI, but it has cost me a little bit of overall performance since I went from a wired connection to my router to wireless. The biggest place this hurts me is in my backup to the cloud performance which seems to take about 4x longer now.
I have one 16 TB NTFS volume as shown below, but I regret doing this for performance reasons. A more intelligent approach would have been to have done two 8TB volumes.
With complex electronics failures can and do happen, so I chalk up my unfortunate initial experience to bad luck. Based on the 200,000+ customers Drobo has had and all of the great testimonies I’ve heard, I’d say that your odds of getting a bad unit are about the same as being struck by lightning.
My DroboPro with my Alienware Aurora R4 system has been extremely reliable via iSCSI for over 6 months so I’m very happy with the reliability with the unit I currently have. As a result, I’m confident in recommendation of the DroboPro for anyone who needs great performance managing a lot of storage.
Recommendation: If you don’t need a huge 8 bay, then go for the Drobo S for a local storage solution. If you’d rather have a NAS then go for the Drobo FS. If you find down the road that you need more storage you can always get a another Drobo S, turn off dual disk redundancy and let Drobo PC Backup send copies to both units when you backup. I also recommend a max volume size of 8TB (or smaller if you can live with it).
Generally speaking, I’d stay away from USB 3.0 connections as I’ve been finding a high number of issues with a wide variety of machines using USB 3.0 on non-Drobo devices. This has ZERO to do with Drobo, but I mention this to save you some headache as the only machines I’ve used with reliable USB 3.0 so far have been select Lenovo and Sony machines.
Where to Buy
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Drobo provided me with a DroboPro unit to review at my request. If you use the links in this article I may get a commission.