DROBO – Is your data safe?



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.

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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.

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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

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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.




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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.




Near Thunderbolt Speeds with USB 3.0

If you do a lot of video or photo editing you will find out quickly how important a fast hard disk becomes.  The ability to read and write massive amounts of data is a must.  Depending on what kind of work you do a simple USB drive may be fine.  For those who need more may need an SSD drive or even a thunderbolt connection if you have a Mac or a PC with thunderbolt.  What is thunderbolt and what is USB…

USB 3.0

Right out of Wikipedia…

“USB 3.0 is the third major version of the Universal Serial Bus (USB) standard for interfacing computers and electronic devices. Among other improvements, USB 3.0 adds the new transfer mode SuperSpeed (SS) that can transfer data at up to 5 Gbit/s (625 MB/s), which is about ten times faster than the USB 2.0 standard.”


Right out of thunderbolttechnology.net…

“Thunderbolt™ technology is a transformational I/O innovation that provides a leap in performance over current I/O technologies with 10 Gbps of full-duplex bandwidth per channel. It significantly simplifies the end-user experience by concurrently supporting data (PCI Express*) and display (DisplayPort) connections over a single cable. Thunderbolt products may be connected using electrical or optical cables. Thunderbolt technology enables flexible and innovative system designs by allowing multiple, high-performance, PCI Express and DisplayPort devices to attach to a computer through a single physical connector.

Gbps and Gbit mean the same thing…gigabit per second.  So on the surface it seems that thunderbolt is twice as fast as USB 3.0.  Before we go much deeper lets put the gigabits into a measurement that we can deal with.  I use the black magic drive disk speed test software for my tests and it measures in MB/s or megabytes per second.  So 5Gbps would be equal to 625 megabytes and 10 Gbps 1250 megabytes.  Both are very very fast.  So lets get a relative sense of speed.  Here I have tested a western digital 2.5″ backup hdd using USB 3.0 interface and lets measure some speed.

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So indicated by the Black Magic disk speed test this drive would not be suitable for editing video.  It is able to write 86.5 megabytes per second and read 93.4 megabytes.  It works just fine for moving data, data storage and files that are smaller in size but not good enough for the huge throughput that A/V requires.  The main reason for this lack of speed has nothing to do with the interface.  We know that the USB 3.0 interface can handle more but the drive is a basic spinning disk at 5900 rpm and is slow in todays world.  No matter how much throughput you have the disk will only provide so much.  We are limited at the disk.  Think of it like driving a Yugo on the Audubon.  You couldn’t go 150 miles an hour if you wanted to.

So the obvious next step would be to use the USB 3.0 interface with an SSD drive to reduce the bottle neck.  I did just that.  I found the most highly rated, least expensive, drive on Amazon.

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I mounted this silicon power disk into the inateck case and gave it a whirl.  The drive on the Black Magic now performed very well at speeds of  about 400 megabytes per second.  This is easily enough to edit video except for some of the most demanding resolutions and color depths.

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With the new 4k resolution craze and some new video formats around there still could be a need for even more speed.  I started looking at thunderbolt devices and specifically 2 drive bay cases.  I found out quickly that thunderbolt is very expensive.  Even thunderbolt version one products cost 3-5 times as much as the equivalent usb 3.0 devices.  I decided to try a test to see what kind of speed I would get if I created a raid 0 array with a second SSD drive and case and this is how I did it.

With the Mac and OS X you can actually create various raid arrays through the disk utility and their software controller.  This is called a software raid.  A hardware raid is made by the actual hardware or disk cases having various switches and settings.  Hardware raids are more versatile but I am on a budget.  Software raid it is.

What is raid 0?  Raid 0 is a way to “tie” together two disks and letting the computer see them as one “virtual” disk.  Why would you want to do this?  Allowing the computer to access two disks allows it twice as much space and throughput as the normal configuration.  Example:  lets say the computer has to send 10 pieces of data to the drive.  On a normal single drive system it would send them 1, then 2, then 3, then 4, then 5, then 6, then 7, then 8, then 9 and finally 10.  Now if it had two drives to write to it could send by twos… 1,2 then 3,4 then 5,6 then 7,8 then 9,10.  More lanes, bigger roads easier to drive fast…

Pro’s and Con’s

A risky con…A normal single drive is a bad idea for back up.   If the drive dies, the data dies with it.  In a Raid 0 scenario if either of the drives in the array dies then all of the data dies with it.  Even if the other drive is working it only has pieces of all the data it needs and can’t make any sense of whats left.  So in effect by having two drives represent one whole set of data you have doubled your risk of drive failure because now you depend on two.

Another smaller con is that you use up two usb ports because you’re using two drives and this software raid will only work with the software that created it and not on all computers.


Lets look at the pros

SPEED…Check this out.

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With both drives in a Raid 0 array they achieved more than 700 megabytes throughput!  That is ready for any kind of video or photo editing you can throw at it.  WOW!


I literally strapped the two drives together to keep movement to a minimum so cable wouldn’t come loose.



I then went into the Disk Utility on my mac arranged the two drives as Raid 0.

The new Mac OS x made things a little more complicated for me.  There is no longer a user interface for creating Raid arrays in disk utility.  I had to go to the terminal window and type:

diskutil appleRAID create stripe [arrayName] JHFS+ disk0 disk1

** ! make sure you select the correct drives for the array…mine happened to be disk0 and disk1 yours could be different ! **

Disk0 being one of my SSD drives and Disk1 being the other SSD.  Once I hit return the array was created and showed up as one drive on my desktop with the name I gave it.


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You can plug in the usb cables for the array in any order.  They did not however work through a usb hub.  I plugged them directly into the back of my machine.



Now make sure you don’t just yank the cables out when you’re finished using the drive.  You want to eject the drive first…let it complete the exit and then pull the cables out.  Remember if you corrupt the data on one drive its ALL gone!

Anyway at these speeds I am comparable to most Thunderbolt 1 drives that are similar that I have seen.  Yes there are combinations that are faster but not for this price.  I paid a grand total of $312 for all of this and a thunderbolt drive setup similar would cost double or more.  Its a good option if you’re on a budget so try one on your Mac.

Feel free to ask any questions.