As my family grows, the need for more home movies, photos and media storage grows too. After a few years of digital photography and video especially with the HD formats out there I accumulated quite a bit of data. There is some confusion with what the term “back up” really means. To some people, saving your data and media on to a single hard disk is considered back up. Let me assure you, it’s not! If (actually when) that drive fails everything on it is gone. Forever. Yes, you can try sending it to a data recovery shop but get ready to shell out big bucks and it probably won’t work. A true “back up” is having your data duplicated and then one set of that data is secure while you’re using the other. For most of us that’s not always practical. A step closer to back up is a multi-drive arrangement with some built-in security to enable you to replace and repair a bad or failing hard disk. This is where Drobo comes into play. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still not “back up” but its at least a fighting chance. You can achieve a multi-disk array with recovery several ways. There are Raid Arrays, Drobo (their own proprietary raid type thing) and other manufacturers like Sonology …a NAS server with their own recovery method. There are many to choose from. What I like about Drobo is the simplicity to their approach.
Drobo has been around a while. I didn’t want to commit fully with Drobo before trying it out. I purchased a Gen 2 Drobo 4 on eBay for $100. It’s a 4 disk configuration. Whats nice about the Drobo is you can put any speed, size, brand of disk in the unit and mix and match. So if you have a few drives lying around pop them in and your off. The other cool thing is it aggregates the storage space among the disks and reserves some space for recovery and expansion (more on that later). Once you put the disks in place the Drobo takes over and formats the set and all the lights turn green when its ready. One thing I love about the Drobo is its ability to expand simply by pulling out a smaller drive and replacing it with a larger one. It can even do this while its on and running and you can still access your data. Drobo connects to the computer via USB. The Gen 2 Drobo is usb 2.o but the current Gen 3 is usb 3.0. Once the drives are in and configured the Drobo more or less acts like any other hard disk drive you would connect to your computer. There is a software interface called “dashboard” that allows you to adjust settings and check information too.
On the Drobo website they have a calculator that will tell you what space you’ll end up with based on the size of drives you put into the unit. Below you see that I have 4 – two terabyte drives installed. The capacity meter shows that out of 4 drives a drives worth of space is reserved in case of a drive failure. So if all drives are the same size you get about 75% or your total capacity for storage.
Here is something to note. See the photo below…it has the same total TB for storage as the photo above but you end up with less storage. How is that? Well, the device has to protect all drives and allow for expansion but its largest drive in the mix is 3TB so it takes more to protect this drive. In this case you end up with 62% of your total capacity for storage.
Recently I had my first drive fail. Yes a blinking red light and a note that said replace this drive immediately. So I took the opportunity to pull it out and replace it with a new, larger drive. I had never been through this process and it made me a little nervous. After speaking with tech support I got the rundown on the lights and what they mean.
Green: All is good
Red: Replace this drive
Orange (not blinking): Replace this drive for more storage space
Blinking Green and Orange: Data protection in progress “DO NOT REMOVE THE DRIVES WHEN IN THIS MODE”
Blue Dot Lights: Indicates the amount of data storage you have used
After I swapped the drive all four lights started blinking green and orange so things were going as planned. What I didn’t expect was it took close to 40 hours to re-build the array back to safety. Wow! Started on a Sunday night and finished on a Wednesday morning. I guess it’s better than the alternative…lost data. Once the lights were all green it was business as usual. So far I have replaced a failed disk and expanded two others and have been through the data protection process 3 times and have not lost any data. Nice.
There is a new Gen 3 which has USB 3.0 interface and is rumored to have much faster build times when protecting data or setting up arrays. I was able to order one of those at a large discount at only $199. When the new unit arrives I can simply power down my Gen 2, remove the drives and place the drives (in the same order) in my Gen 3 and turn it on and it should be ready to go.
All is not perfect. A couple of drawbacks. It’s not a NAS, so no network storage. They do offer units with network options but there are better brands and devices for that in my opinion. If you’re looking for a device to access data across the network then don’t buy a Drobo. The units are fairly slow and Service at Drobo is OK at best. They get a little stubborn when they realize you’re out of warranty. My take is that if you’re a company that claims to keep data safe then when a customer is stressed and trying to implement the procedures your company sets up to do that then HELP THEM! I spent 10 minutes arguing with a rep once and then when his boss called me back it took her only 5 to help me with what I needed. I don’t seem to be alone with experiences like this either. That being said, the unit has performed well and I have not yet lost any data.
Don’t forget the upsides…any drives can be used. They can be hot swapped while the unit is running. Drobo will protect your data. Its simple, anyone can manage their data with a Drobo.
If you need to store some valuable data and want a tad more protection than just a single hard disk drive, Drobo could be a good option for you.
**November 8, 2015 UPDATE – I moved my drives from the Drobo 2nd Gen to the new Drobo 3rd Gen **
A quick note. I received my Gen 3 drobo a few days after writing this post. To re-cap the Gen 3 gives you USB 3.0 connection speeds and a faster processor that is supposed to cut down on data protection and recovery times. TRANSFER…Well all did not go as planned. It was supposed to be as simple as moving the drives over from the old machine to the new machine and all would be well. In my case the transfer did not work properly. The new machine did not recognize one of the drives upon transfer. After a restart and re-seating all of the drives it finally took. Then the machine went through data protection process which I can report happily that all the data is still there and the process took about 8-10 hours as compared to the previous machine taking around 30-40 hours. Huge improvement. I never did lose any data so I still have to give Drobo props on keeping their promise on data protection. As far as the USB 3.0 speeds…well after a speed test its not impressive but its better. The speed and general functionality of the Drobo dashboard are far improved too. Oh and one other nice thing…it allows me to allocate a section of storage to be used for time machine backups…nice.
A nice video I have recently come across that explains Drobo and how it works.