Drobo, my experience so far.

This post is outdated. Not everything is accurate anymore. More than three years later I still have my Drobo running and have performed disk swaps without any problems. Drobo has grown up by now. One remaining issue though is the speed (although that should be better with the newer models): it’s not optimal.

A few months ago I bought a Drobo. Ever since I’ve been getting questions of future Drobo owners if the device is any good, what I use it for and if they should buy it too. I must say that I find it tough to answer them, as I have mixed feelings about this product.

A note: This is a review by me as a home-user who’s also a little bit of a geek. You can expect some gobbledygook, but don’t expect any charts/graphs of throughput/speed (which you can find here) nor voltages nor speed-up timings nor Having had my Drobo for quite a while I now know that it can be quite disappointing when it comes down to speed. I’ve collected the actual speeds and listed them at the bottom of this page, along with other updates … I’m quite the non-techie when it comes down to hardware ๐Ÿ˜‰

A Drobo?

The Drobo exaclty is what the intro-movie (shown below) tells you: smart storage robot which allows you to put in various types/sizes of harddrives from whereon the thing will handle itself in order to protect you as much as possible (do the math yourself via the handy DroboLator).

Looks great, right? Yes it does … but there’s more than looks when it comes to making a good product.

Setting it up

Setting it up ain’t that hard: install the Drobo Dashboard, plug in the Drobo (don’t recall if that was instructed to be with or without drives in the Drobo), format it and go nuts ๐Ÿ™‚

What could’ve been explained better in the documentation is that the formatting actually is a fake formatting: you format your Drobo to being 16TB (for example), even if you only tuck in 1TB of real capacity. Your OS will detect 16TB and let you fill her up to that. The smart Drobo kicks in when you’ve reached nearly the maximum of the real storage capacity (somewhere around 0.8TB in the example): a light will go on telling you put in more disks.

You can see this in action the screenshot below: my Drobo is set up with 1TB real capacity (2x1TB, mirrored automatically for data protection) of which only 100MB data is used. The green bars indicate that both HDs work fine and that there’s enough capacity left.

If then my Drobo would go nearly full, it will advise you to put in an extra HD (via the yellow/orange indication – as seen on both on the unit itself, as in the dashboard). If you don’t do that the Drobo will drop the data protection and use the full 2TB it has. If you do tuck in an extra HD, it will reorganize itself to give you the best protection it can give you.

What was I talking about? Right: the fake formatting. The great part of the whole process above is that your Drobo will always appear as being 16TB in your OS. Clever Drobo indeed; Attaboy!

However, what they don’t tell you in the movie (but you should know if you’ve worked with RAID arrays before) is that reorganizing takes quite some time. I did the test and yanked out one of the three hard drives my Drobo has and it took about 6 hours to rebuild. Of course, as the movie states, you can still use your Drobo during this process.

It should also be noted that XP users won’t be able to format the Drobo to being 16TB as that OS is limited to 2TB. I advise one to switch to Vista/OSX as 2TB will eventually hit you on the head (if you format it as 16TB I think one has quite a few years to go) as it’s not possible to increase this virtual drive size without formatting your Drobo. If you do however have more real storage capacity than virtual capacity, the Drobo will assign an extra drive (a FAQ on this topic can be read here)

Plug and Play, aye?

What you also should know is that the Drobo is not your typical external hard drive (which you plug in, push data on, pull out, plug into another PC and get data off); The Drobo is a storage unit which will stay in place, connected to the one computer you hook it too (or onto the DroboShare)

If you do want to move it to an other computer, you have to put the Drobo unit into standby via the Drobo Dashboard software. If you don’t do that (viz. you just pull out the USB plug) you will indefinitely lose data.

What I’m trying to say is: think twice before buying one if you have a laptop which you move around all the time … it’s quite tedious to standy it all the time whenever you move your laptop / put your laptop to sleep (also see the “Sleeping Tech Support” issue a bit further in this post)

However, if your Drobo is connected to a fixed computer (a tower of some sorts) via USB (which it was in my case) it will automatically boot up and shut down whenever your PC starts up/shuts down; Quite handy indeed!

This sounds great! Why do you have mixed feelings about this device?

From a technical point of view the Drobo indeed is a great device. It does what it should do and it really is a no-brainer to install/work with.

However, the one technical flaw that I have encountered is the fact that darn thing is a noisy device, the fan of the Drobo really makes a lot of noise. How loud exactly I don’t know, but I can tell you this: You could leave it on at night, but if it’s not that distant from your bed (which it is in my case, one-floored-studio-ftw!) you probably won’t sleep that much ๐Ÿ˜‰

Okay, one could afromod his Drobo and install a new fan, but that will void the warranty (next to the fact that this is something that you shouldn’t do as the Drobo should ship with a more silent fan)


Putting in a new fan (src)

On the forums I’ve read that some people need to contact Tech Support and get their Drobo replaced (yes, their whole Drobo unit). Noble, but I won’t/can’t do that as I do use my Drobo daily.

Another thing that’s been bothering me is/I don’t quite understand, is the licensing model. After installing the Drobo Dashboard software I noticed (total surprise there!) that I have a DroboCare License valid until November 2009 (’til one year after I installed it). Now this is odd: I buy a device and only get limited support on it? Okay, I understand that the hardware warranty only lasts up to two years, but this – as far as I can tell, cos’ the documentation on this is totally fuzzy in this area – DroboCare-thingy limits me from getting firmware updates after that date is due?!? How will I then get firmware bugs fixed from then on?

Continuing this fuzziness … the Drobo Support Forums require one to enter his Drobo serial number before he/she can access the forums. This is quite disturbing (heck, one established forum member quit because of this malpractice) as it doesn’t give future Drobo owners the chance to read up (hence I am writing this post, to share stuff with interested buyers) and see what lives in the community (any problems, how good is the support, etc.). Now, I must tell you: the forum does hold some surprises (next to the fact that it’s rather cluttered) … just read on :S

Sleeping Tech Support

One thing that has caught my eye whilst reading the (private) forums is a very odd issue and how tech support is handling it.

Note that I cannot verify this issue as my Drobo is connected via a DroboShare and therefore don’t have this issue; I can only state here what I’ve read.

In the Drobo forums and across the interwebs I’ve read that many people have had issues with their Mac waking up from sleep when a Drobo’s connected. The Mac wakes up fine, but the Drobo stammers a bit:

  • Sleep your Mac and your Drobo goes to sleep too (as it should);
  • Wake up your mac and the Drobo goes active: the disks start to spin up (as it should);
  • However, during spin-up OSX tells you the Volume got disconnected and eventually your Drobo will reboot! → oink?!

The Drobo Forums literally are packed with this issue (nearly 100 topics when searching for “mac sleep”) and apparently it has been going on for over a year and a half by now. From what I’ve read (one such a forum thread can be read here, that is if you have access to the forums) Drobo Tech Support will nearly always ask for a log and then blame it on a bad/slow drive whilst all users say that even with new drives (that do spin up fine) the problem still persists.


Sleeping Mac

Now, what got me even more puzzled is the (very recent) curious case of Fraser Speirs. He had the same / a likewise problem and eventually his Drobo got replaced and now it works fine. This has got me guessing even more: all of the sudden it is a Drobe hardware issue?

The reason I’m noting this issue, is to express the fact that:

  • hidden forums are boo-boo (a non-Drobo owner would never know without me telling it here),
  • tech support will always blame it on an other thing (viz. the slow disk) and from then on ignore the request,
  • it takes quite a while before issues get resolved / a new firmware gets released (it has been lasting for over a year by now!)

However, I recently noted that Drobo Tech Support is kind of reorganizing itself … the support via the forum has become somewhat better since December 2008 as forum member Usha S (employed by Data Robotics Inc (DRI)) moderates the support forums and redirects users to the helpdesk, fulltime. Above that in the topic I linked before an official stated that they are (finally) investigating it ๐Ÿ™‚ How long this will take is uncertain however ๐Ÿ™

Above that a very recent (untested by me though) user solution has been published on the forums and it should resolve the issue until it officially gets fixed. However, response to the supposed solution is rather non-existent (only 2 replies in 2 weeks).

DroboShare & DroboApps

I myself have bought a DroboShare in order to use my Drobo as LAN, and access it from both my Mac as my PC. Installation is pretty straightforward: it just works (TM); Above that, again, it’s a very slick device (good looking and all) and it sports a gigabit ethernet port ๐Ÿ™‚


Drobo + DroboShare

However, more than “just works”, there’s not much to owning a DroboShare. What one would expect from a NAS is to have a privileges system built in: share folder X publically, allow folder Y to be accessed by users A & B, share folder Z only with user B, give user A read-only access to folder W, etc.

Alas, nothing of that with the DroboShare: you either protect it all (yes, the full contents of the Drobo) with a password, or don’t protect it at all. No user management, no privileges, no nothing.

Now, the above ain’t a problem to me, but I can think of scenario’s (companies for example, or even families) where the lack of a privileges system can cause some troubles (imagine your son deleting your full blown photo archive).

On thing however that has been bothering me with the DroboShare, is that there’s no proper way of awakening a Drobo connected via DroboShare after it has been put in standby mode.

To put a Drobo in standby, one must do so via the Drobo Dashboard. What one must know however is that if you have 2 Drobo’s connected (yes, you can hook up 2 Drobos ๐Ÿ™‚ ), both of them will go in standby!

Now, after they have been put in Standby, there’s no proper way of awakening the Drobo’s … the only solution I came up with is to unplug the USB cable (or power cord), and replug it in. The Drobo will then start up.

I myself find that’s really troublesome, as one would expect to tuck his Drobo away somewhere in the house and let it hum away … and not to walk to it every time you’ve put in into standby, unplug it and replug it in.

The possibility to install apps on your DroboShare is nice indeed, yet don’t expect that much from it. Not that many apps are avaiable, and at this very moment they’re no more of a gimmick to me.

Yes, you can install a webserver and an FTP server on the DroboShare but it merely is a basic webserver (no PHP, no MySQL) and the FTP isn’t of use to me (I want to access my files via a share, not FTP, as other applications (such as the excellent Plex) rely on the share)

Wishlist

The only real hardware problem I have with my Drobo is the very loud fan … I hope that DRI will fix this in a future release (Drobo V3 perhaps?). While they’re at it, they might want to throw in an e-SATA connection, as that technology has become standard nowadays.

Concerning the DroboShare I would want either a hardware button on the Drobo (maybe in Drobo V3?) to toggle a it between standy/active or – even better – a way to wake up a connected Drobo by sending a command to your DroboShare (something like a WOL packet for example). The ability to select which of the connected Drobos you want to activate/standby would be great too.

Regarding Drobo, the Company (DRI) I’d advise them to get their act together. C’mon guys, you do have a great and promising product, but the overall experience gets fucked up either through bad/neglectic support, a skanky licensing scheme that changes from time to time (although the forum now hints that this will change, again?), lacking – or none at all – communication, etc.

So, should you, dear reader, buy it?

Although the Drobo Experience has quite a few quirks (mainly support/administrative-wise) I’d say yes as this device promises what it does: It’s a clever storage device that works and it’s the only one out there that can be expanded endlessly (today, 16TB seems endless to me).

However, if you can live without one for a while (knowing that you can buy a 1TB drive for less than € 100 nowadays) I’d say no: wait for the Drobo V3 (which hopefully will have the hardware issues fixed), buy that one and hopefully by then the lacking support and troubles with the forums will have cleared up.


Drobo?

As goes for the DroboShare, I’d say no right now as it has no real extra value except for making it available on your LAN. The available apps are either quite useless or very hard to set up/undocumented.

However, if you do own a laptop/MacBook which goes to sleep (or gets moved) a lot I’d say yes … only keeping you away from the current OSX-sleep issue is worth the investment (although morally it is not upon you to make an extra investment to bypass a bug they should solve).

Summing it all up

The device itself is great, the other stuff that should come with it (support and such) isn’t.

If you should buy one? It depends.


PARTIAL.FAIL

Although only a partial answer, I hope this blogpost helped you a bit

Updates

2009.03.05
The irony of it all wants that just after hitting publish I received a mail from DRI informing me that they are organizing a webinar covering backup, protection and remote access on March 12. Hopefully this indeed is a sign that they are opening up ๐Ÿ™‚
2009.03.XX
I had to have my Drobo replaced as it wouldn’t recognize the disk in the fourth slot. After having contacted tech support they sent me a new one (via mail, after which they called me on my phone), after which I sent in my current one. Tech support handled my case well, although it took three mails to actually convince them the slot was busted (good thing I knew how and what).
2009.03.XX
I studied the Drobo up close when it comes to speed. Only getting a maximum op 24MBps when connected via USB2 (note: most of the users don’t even get this speed), and a silly 11MBps over LAN (yes, even with Gigabit running) → The USB2 speed is workable, but not perfect (should be around 60MBps). The DroboShare speed is just SLOW → Don’t buy a DroboShare if you’ve only got one computer accessing your Drobo.
2009.04.07
Drobo announced the DroboPro. Looks great (just like the Drobo) but on the forums I read from some users that the speeds are good (60MBps) but then most of ‘m have only but problems with the device. Don’t buy for now I’d say (above that it’s VERY expensive).
2009.07.XX
My Drobo has been runnning stable for the past few months, speed issues aside. Can’t talk about support as I didn’t need support the past few months. On the formus I read that the DroboPro has speed issues: it does indeed go up to 65MBps but only in bursts: get up to that speed, stall for a few seconds and then continue. DRI then of course then blames it on all other hardware you’re using (the switch, the network cable, the disks, …) → Still no reason to upgrade so far.
2009.09.16
Today one of the four 1TB disks in my Drobo crashed and the Drobo is relayouting itself. Good thing is I can access my data while it’s relayouting. Bad thing the relayouting will take 27 hours (estimated by the Drobo Dashboard).
2009.12
The Drobo S is out, with eSATA port and a fifth disk slot. Looked up some (actual!) speeds and here’s how it compares to the Drobo:

Drobo
USB 2.0: 20 to 30MB/s
FW800: 32 to 49MB/s
Drobo S
USB 2.0: 25 to 30MB/s
FW800: 35 to 62MB/s
eSATA: 70 to 90MB/s

To make it complete: the DroboShare runs at 14MBps tops; there’s no advantage in hooking it onto a Gigabit network.

Another Dailie , , , , ,

13 Responses to Drobo, my experience so far.

  1. Pingback: Bram.us » My Drobo Experience

  2. Richard says:

    Great write up, thanks.

    I’ve been running one for a few days now with DroboShare and all seems fine. The fan does not seem too bad … possibly a newer component? but it is in an office environment where we don’t sleep (well, maybe on the odd occasion) data access is faster than the old NAS drives it replaced and I like the idea of protecting the data from drive failure and ‘easy’ expansion.

    It is used as primary storage for the (small) company and the data is replicated elsewhere so hopefully it should serve it’s function well. Time will tell.

    Thanks again

    @RichardMackney

  3. Nice article and yes, it’s right: Now as I have a third drive in my Drobo (first generation with USB only) the fan is making a lot of noise… But maybe it’s also a dirty fan from all the dust which came into the machine after more than one year? I’m not sure. Anyway, what’s really not nice from the company: There is no way to update the Firmware and the Drobo Dashboard now, because mine is also more than one year old! And if I would buy a newer Drobo (the one with FireWire 800) I had also a problem: How to copy the nearly 3 GB (from 3x 1 TB inside the “old” Drobo) to the new one? I think there is no way to take the 3 drives out of the old one, put them into the new one and all is fine. So I had to buy e.g. 2x 2 TB drives for the new Drobo, copy the data from the old one and maybe sell the old one WITH the 3x 1TB drives (which would be an expensive Drobo this way). Mmh…

  4. Jeff says:

    Hi, nice article. I am a future drobo owner trying to balance the positive and negetive benefits of the device. With all the technolgy out there it seems silly that a company, like DRI, cannot build a solid attached starage device capable of housing 4-drives, and giving you the sense of security and speed needed when a user is accessing up to 6TB of data. I wish they would release a Drobo v3 that would incorporate all the the user flaws to date. I have heard that one is in development, but with beta testing we probably will not see it for another 6 months. So, this last weekend I purchased a v2 from Amazon and will see how it performs.

    How did your rebuild go after your drive failed? Was it a true 27 hours?

  5. Bramus! says:

    Hi Jeff, the rebuild indeed was 27 hours. During the process I could use my Drobo, but at a reduced speed.
    When I got the faulty drive repaired I popped it back in after which the Drobo recognized it without any problems and increased my free space.

    Regarding the Drobo v3: DRI has released the DroboPro recently. I’ve read reports that it can perform rather good, but it’s still flaky (as mentioned in the updates). Don’t know if they are making a Drobo v3 though, it only was a speculation of mine. Have you gotten a link with info about that?

    Regards,
    B!

  6. peter says:

    good post bram consdiering the topic top league..

    as my 2nd gen [4 bay] drobo showed the drivers were faulty
    I’ll have to reformat probably and just as I transfered 100 gigabyte of music files the 60 gigabyte of movies is troubling me as I’ve deleted the movie folder contents how do I get
    hold of the itunes list

    otherwise I am loving the product just hope I can move to the next phase

  7. Thanks for the article and continuous updates. They help tremendously. I have a Drobo v2, and, while still working on the perfect setup, I’m giving it a 6 out of 10. I had mine replaced due to a faulty power supply. Second one is okay, but sometimes has a nasty hum/vibration that eats at my brain.

  8. While I love this device and have had no issues with it for almost 2 years now my biggest complaint is that it doesn’t have a power switch on it. Sure it is great that it automatically starts up and shuts down with my PC but not at the cost of that boot up taking several minutes as opposed to seconds. My only solution has been to disconnect the power once I shut down and then reconnect it after a quick boot up if I know I am going to need access to the device.

  9. Mark says:

    I have a Drobo, but only use it to archive photos. I also have numerous other ext. drives that I use for archival purposes. I bought an “American Dj” model pc-100A that I plug all my ext. drives into that allows me to switch on or off any one drive at a time. It’s rack mountable with 8 rocker switches on the front. I don’t have to mess with unplugging or plugging in Ext. HD to turn them on or off. I leave the usb/firewire plugged into the computer. The unit is very inexpensive, around $30. Hope that helps.

  10. Josh says:

    Hey you guys,

    Any body purchase the Drobo S. I really wanna buy it but I’m still on the fence. At the moment I’ve got a macbook pro and the idea of putting it in standby all the time kinda stinks. Does anyone know what changes have been implemented.
    Thanks!

  11. Josh says:

    OH and GREAT ARTICLE thanks so much for writing this!

  12. Mario says:

    Hello, my name is Mario, I work for Drobo. This is a great article; we appreciate anything that is fair and balanced, and always like seeing detailed analysis and opinions. For anyone who might come across this review in 2011, there are a few points to confirm:

    – Drobo offers free access to software updates on our web site @ http://www.drobo.com/support/updates.php
    – Drobo forums are open to anyone @ http://www.drobospace.com/forums/
    – DroboCare is a low-cost investment for extended peace of mind beyond the standard warranty, including 24/7 access to telephone support as well as expedited same-day replacement shipping for next day delivery (available in US and select European countries), details @ http://www.drobo.com/support/drobocare.php

    Drobo packs sophisticated storage virtualization and protection into an ultra easy-to-use package, with >150,000 customers (as of February 2011) using Drobo to protect their valuable digital assets. Drobo products and support continue to improve, and and the family of products continues to grow. With 3TB drives, it is possible to keep massive amounts of data in a protected location for efficient access. Thanks!

  13. Patrick says:

    I am reading this blog in late August of 2011. To Mario’s point, Drobo has been helping me to guard my data, hence my client’s data for 4 years. I was impressed when I first purchased my Drobo that was talking to a live person when I called who was personable and smart. I was also impressed and confident that I could invest in a system I could indefinitely update. I was really appalled to read that they were ending support for my first generation unit well before it could ever live up to storing the 16TB as promised. And to hear that I may possibly have trouble moving my data to a new unit is even more disturbing. What’s the story? At this moment, my Drobo is relaying out the data from a 4TB config to a 5TB config and it says that it will take 85 hours. This is like bombing someone with a 100 mb email. Seriously, the Videos show a different experience of disk swapping. I can’t imagine that those disks weren’t optimized to behave in that way. Perhaps there is a class action to start on this. If I lose data in this process, I will have a lot more emails/blogs to write.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *