This post is outdated.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 … I’m quite the non-techie when it comes down to hardware 😉
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 🙂
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 😉
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.
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 🙂 How long this will take is uncertain however 🙁
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 🙂
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 🙂 ), 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)
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.
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.
Although only a partial answer, I hope this blogpost helped you a bit
- 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 🙂
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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:
- 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.