Drobo. Worth the hype?

drobomain2.pngThe Drobo made Macworld’s “Year’s Best” hardware list, and was also mentioned on ProLost:

You can cram any configuration of drives into it and it will keep your data redundantly safe. Don’t worry about mixing and matching drives, just throw in what’s cheap and plentiful. As drives get cheaper, toss bigger ones in there.

So what makes this so amazing?

Well, most external hard drives are single drives in an enclosure that can fail.
That sucks.

Some enclosures have two drives striped as a RAID-Ø for great size and speed, but now, you have two drives that can fail, and failure of either means all your data is gone.
That sucks.raid-10.png

Some enclosures feature numerous drives that you set up in a RAID of some other type offering redundancy and data security, but which takes a bit of technical know how and a careful instruction, consideration and decision as to which RAID system to employ.
That kinda sucks.

walkman.gifSo Drobo is a hardware RAID that not only makes the decision for you, it looks cool too.
That doesn’t suck at all.

As much as the Sony Walkman made carrying your music simple,
the Drobo makes connected data with security simple too.

drobodisks.jpgDrobo recognizes the capacities available from a group of varied disk drives. Using an intelligent mixture of industry standard practices to protect your data, Drobo can offer significantly more storage capacity than standard RAID solutions. Just how you would expect storage to work, add more drives or replace smaller drives with larger ones, and get more space.

readynasnv.gifThis is quite similar to what Infrant has been using in their NAS (Network Attached Storage) systems for several years now. I have an Infrant NAS for my own shop and have set one up for clients as well. The magic comes in the scalability of Infrant’s X-RAID technology.

You see, previously, if you set up a RAID system on your own, you have to select the partition size that will be used across all drives. In most cases where all the drives are identical, this is usually the formatted capacity of each drive. But if you have dissimilar drives of different capacities, its best to pick the lowest common denominator. This will leave wasted space on the bigger drives.

Then, once you build the RAID with all of these drives, you can’t go and change the partition size of any of the drives without first removing all the data to someplace else (i.e. a _second_ storage device with as much as or more than your big RAID system), then formatting your RAID, adjusting the partitions and then putting all the data back.
This whole process goes back to the “this sucks” part of the equation.

Intrant’s X-RAID technology let you slap in whatever you had and it would build a RAID (Raid-5 by default) on its own . Each of the drives inside the RAID carries a portion of the redundant data so that the loss of any one drive would not jeopardize any of your data.
That’s cool.

Of course, the RAID-5 that is created uses the highest common partition size of all the drives. So two 500 GB and two 250 GB drives would mean that you’d get four 250 GB partitions in your RAID-5. The real trick is that you don’t need to remove the data to upgrade your RAID.bricklayer.gif

You pop out one of the 250 GB drives. The NAS sends me an e-mail alerting me to the “failure” of the drive. Slide in a 500 GB drive. The NAS will rebuild the 250 GB partition that was previously on that drive. Now, do this all again for the second 250 GB drive. Then turn the unit off, turn the unit back on and the NAS will rebuild itself as having four 500 GB partitions– automatically. At no point do I have to offload all my data to a second hard drive system. The system upgrades itself from four 250 GB partitions to four 500 GB partitions and my data is always intact within the little box.

That’s cool.

The only thing that would make this any better is some device that has the RAID features of both the Drobo and the Infrant ReadyNAS, but adds a much faster interface like FW800 or SATA. graph.gifBy this I mean that it would be both a wickedly fast locally attached RAID system, and a network attached storage- so that other people elsewhere on the network (or around the world) could go into my hard drive system and access files without any demands placed on my host computer to “share” the data. This is especially important when trying to edit multiple layers of video in real time. I don’t want 10% of my processing power to be whisked away to try and take care of someone else accessing my data. Let the drive system handle that on an as available basis. Leave the computer alone.

The current drawbacks of both the Drobo and the Infrant systems is the available throughout to the storage. Drobo touts “up to read 22 MBps and 20 MBps write.” Heck, I get more than 30 MBps with a 2.5″ laptop drive in a bus powered FW400 enclosure. More than 45 MBps with an external 3.5″ drive/enclosure over FW400. No, my drives don’t offer RAID redundancy, but one of the perks of RAID is supposed to be speed. Getting “up to” 20 MBps, well, sucks.

For comparison, Infrant’s tests of performance over gigabit ethernet give results that are even better than Drobo’s performance to a dedicated computer over High Speed USB 2.0:

In our performance lab, using IOMeter in sequential read/write test with the ReadyNAS NV, we can achieve 30 MB/sec on reads and 24 MB/sec on writes. This is using a Dell 2.8GHz PC running Windows XP Pro.

But all this pales in comparison to Micronet’s SANcube 800.
sancube.gif The SANcube, despite having received no apparent development for several years now, boasts “Over 65 MB/second data throughput” to four different computers at the same time, over FireWire 800. Plus, you get the redundancy of RAID for data security. This would be a fantastic product if it weren’t for the high cost per seat, and the fact that you could never put in, up change out the drives on your own. It was always sold as a complete system.

Sadly, it seems that development of the SANcube has stopped because finding one for sale somewhere is very hard, the capacities indicate that it has not been updated with today’s drive capacities, and there hasn’t been a press release or review in years.

attofccard.gifI’m well aware of Fibre Channel. The reason I don’t discuss it is because controllers cost several thousands of dollars. A single channel PCI card like this Dual 4 Gigabit fibre channel card for one computer is over a thousand dollars. This doesn’t include the drives, or RAID enclosure, like a Drobo, or better yet, a WiebeTech ProSATA SS8 (holds 8 drives) on “Super Special” for $2458. All together, a fibre channel system for four computers could easily blow past $10,000.

Suddenly, Micronet’s SANcube with Firewire 800 to four computers and RAID redundancy doesn’t seem so pricey at around $4000. If you don’t need FW800, and have more users, the Infrant ReadyNAS starts to look pretty appealing. But they both lack the true high speed capability we expect from our external storage today.

The market is primed and ready for a single box that can serve RAID-protected data to more than one computer with either SATA or FW800. We’ll let you do the redundancy and automatic volume scaling. Let us put the drives in it.


6 thoughts on “Drobo. Worth the hype?

Add yours

  1. I asked the developer of Drobo if they planned a Firewire interface and he said they were looking into it. I’d by in an instant with Firewire 800 (and probably even 400) but I can’t hinge an important purchase like that on USB, even the 2.0.

  2. I agree. As much as USB-2.0 can be “faster” than 1.0, there isn’t much any more that isn’t faster than USB 1.0. USB 2.00 is sort of a cheap way out when it comes to big storage connectivity. Four SATA drives in a RAID can offer SOOOOOO much more than the little Drobo currently offers us.

    Send them a link to this page and maybe they’ll see the market opportunity to provide some of that currently squandered speed to us.


  3. We had a demo of the Drobo at a BAPVA meeting last April. I suggested to them at that time that, while its current data rates were sufficient for general business applications, it would be useless for for video work. They said then they were looking into FW & eSata. Apparently not.

  4. I hear they are making an announcement at MacWorld next week – will be interesting to see what they will bring to market as their second product.

    I have a Drobo, and while it’s not something where I edit my video. It easily satisfied my need to protect my audio and video library, and stream my audio and video without any problems. It’s been a great product (and the fact that it took me less than 10 minutes to setup, including unboxing, is amazing. It took me less than 5 minutes to upgrade the capacity – very nice).


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