Personal Disclaimer – I hate it when websites ‘review’ products without really testing them. What especially kills me is when they quote stats off a sell sheet as if they actually got those results in practice. Therefore this is not a review of the Drobo because I don’t own a Drobo. However, this IS an explanation of why I’m not buying a Drobo – at least not in it’s current form. Read on…
For months I’ve been trying to decide what to do about my growing collection of hard drives, and more importantly, theÂ irreplaceableÂ data on them. I’ve also been concerned about the old drives dying, and firewire dying as a standard. My data and connectivity needs can be split into several categories:
- valuable stuff I need to keep forever – like photos,
- stuff I don’t want to lose but is somewhatÂ replaceable – like ripped backed up movies which could be re-ripped from my library ofÂ owned masters,
- and stuff that is 100% replaceable – such as media captured off of video tapes.
My speed requirements are approximately an inverse of that sliding scale, where the irreplaceable stuff doesn’t have to be on as fast a drive but the video media needs to be on a very fast drive.
One of the reasons I put off the decision is that if I waited long enough 1.5 TB drives would be available and qualified for RAIDs. Â The other is that I’d rather find ONE solution for the whole gamut of my storage needs. It would look like one large volume that is inexpensive, reasonably protected, very fast, and somehow accessible by any computer in my house. Hmm.. does such a solution exist?
The missing Drobo blog post…
On Friday December 12th my post was going to be about the Drobo. I called Data Robotics to get some answers and couldn’t get through. Â In fact, their outgoing message said that I could hold on for a live person but then just dropped me in a VM bucket. I tried several times throughout the day. I finally contacted their PR contact, explained that I was researching Drobo for my tech blog and asked if the company is still in business. She didn’t have an explanation for the bad customer service and gave me some contacts within D.R. to email. No one has ever returned any of my emails or called. Finally, I decided to call their tech support and was eventually able to convince someone there to talk to me even though I don’t own the product. They were also perplexed as to why no one was answering at the sales line, put me on hold for a few minutes, and came back with the explanation: everyone is at the all-day Christmas party. Needless to say I did not post anything on Dec 12th.
Please understand – I am not a scrooge. A holiday party is a reasonable explanation as to WHY they weren’t available. What I don’t get is why they didn’t announce it on their outgoing message or list it as one of the days off on their website. It shows an unprofessional lack of thought and attention towards planning for the future – a corporate mentality which I fear translates to their products. Had I called and got the message “we’re not in the office today celebrating the holiday – call back Monday” – I would have thought nothing of it. But when their outgoing message says “leave a message and someone will call you within 4 business hours” and no one does, it makes me doubt the company’s ability to think into the future – not even able to plan around a Christmas party.
But honestly, this alone is not a valid reason to not by a Drobo. (read the double negative)
What exactly is Drobo…
For a quick explanation I suggest jumping to the Data Robotics site and watching the rather convincingÂ video with Cali Lewis. In short, it’s a hard drive storage solution that is expandable on the fly, AND it uses a type of RAID technology to protect your data from loss. Theoretically and barring any type of physical damage such as water or fire, you can only lose data if two hard drives fail at the same time. Â When one drive dies simply remove it and put in a newer larger drive. The RAID will rebuild all by itself. Â As long as a second drive doesn’t fail before the rebuild is complete – you won’t lose any data.
Drobo has very manyÂ accoladesÂ and to be honest it is quite appealing at first glance – especially for someone less technical. It is a plug and play solution. Add whatever blank SATA drives you have, mixed sizes and all, and it will create a large storage pool. Need more space? Add another drive or replace your smallest drive with a larger one. The idea is that it can grow with your needs and as larger drives hit the market. Â Right now it can be populated with 1.5 TB drives to make a 4.1 TB pool. The manufacturer claims that it is expandable up to 16TB – assuming larger drives become available.
Sounds great, what’s the problem?
Drobo might be an ok solution for many people, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But for my needs it doesn’t work. Â Remember that I’m looking to get a reasonably priced, very large, very fast storage pool that has decent data protection. At first drobo sounded like such a solution, but when thinking it through it falls short. Let’s take the qualifications one at a time:
Price – an empty drobo retails for $499. Then you still have to buy hard drives to put in it. Fully populating it with 1.5’s would cost about $1,100 (assuming 500+150×4). What you’re paying for there is the firmware inside the box that handles the RAID, the virtual storage pool, the data rebuilding, etc. A 5 bay towerRAID box with esata card retails for about $300. My feeling is that the drobo is over-priced by about $150. At $350 I’d be much more tempted to buy one. But even then I would have to consider it’s other limitations.
Size – the drobo only has 4 hard drive bays! This seems like a waste. Why not 5? It’s 20% less than a 5 bay chassis. With current hard drive sizes maxing out at 1.5 TB, it limits the formated storage pool to about 4 TB. For many people that would be enough. Even for me it’s getting there. But I have an immediate need for at least 3.5 TB – with plans to store much more. I would need at least two 4 TB drobos.
Another point is that of the features of the drobo is the expandability. For my needs I would be fully populating it with the largestÂ availableÂ drives right from the start. So that sort of kills the expandability feature – as there would be no where to go for quite a while.
To be fair and tell both sides of the story, let’s assume that in a year 3TB drives become available. The drobo could be expanded by removing one drive and replacing it with a 3TB. Then, after it has finished it’s rebuild, you could replace a second drive with a new 3TB and wait for it to rebuild again. Then repeat with drives 3 and 4. This method would eventually get all the drives swapped out and give you an 8TB storage pool, but the method would take at least a week to perform. Possibly more.
Speed – the newest model of the drobo uses firewire 800 for connectivity. I’m afraid the read/write speeds (especially the write speeds) would frustrate me. Comparing their reported Kona speeds of 50/35 (read/write) to my recentÂ hard drive reviewsÂ you’ll see it’s just not fast enough for my tastes. Even the G-Raid drive beats it at 59/45 on the same Kona test. A single drive on eSata would be around 85/82 – which is about a 1 TB transfer in 3 hours. A RAID 5 on eSata should be able to hit around 160/170.
ConnectivityÂ -Â Â Â The slowness can be attributed to the connectivity.Â USB 2.0 is simply too slow. Firewire 800 is better, but still not fast enough. I really wish it had a tripple interface connection with the addition of eSata.Â Why is there no eSata on the drobo? I attribute it to the company not thinking ahead enough. They started with a USB product. When they updated the model they only went to FW – only thinking that one next step. Â eSata and faster speeds would put this product in a whole new category. Â I’ll certainly revisit it if they make this change on the next version.
Data Protection – well, they’ve got this one in the bag. It is the most appealing thing about the product. I have no complaints in this area.
Network Sharing / NAS – it’s not one of my core qualifications but it is important to note that the drobo can be turned into a NAS with the addition of a $199 accessory called the DroboShare. I feel that product also falls short. With only a USB attachment between the drobo and the droboshare, the NAS speeds are limited to the 23/20 MB/sec – far less than the gigabit ethernet speeds. Also the lack of wifi means that the device has to be placed in cable’s reach of the router, and in my house this isn’tÂ convenient.
Summary and coupon code…
So for me the drobo is a no-go. I’d like to see them reduce the price to $350, add an eSata connection, add a 5th drive bay, and maybe even come out with a PRO-Tower 8-bay version. Â In the mean time I’m probably going to build my own RAID 5 tower(s) using a G-Speed card (same as a Hi-point card) and some SANS Digital TowerRAID chassis’.
For you a drobo might be just the right thing. If a max of 4 TB sounds like a lot, if 35 MB/sec is acceptable write speeds, and if you’ve got the $500 bucks to spend, then jump in. The product appears to be well made and it has gotten rave reviews everywhere else. AND IF YOU ACT NOW – and order before the end of the year – you can get $50 off the retail price. Â Just go to the drobo store, pick one of the firewire products, type in the promo code “SNOWFLAKE” and hit ‘update cart.’ Â Then let me know how it works out for you. Â Maybe I can be swayed to someday get one.