Ever since Geekbrief.TV host Cali Lewis demo’d the very simple-to-use Data Robotics Drobo ($499 MSRP) storage system as it was introduced in early 2008 at Macworld Expo San Francisco, I’ve followed the product’s evolution cycle with great curiosity. Imagine for a moment a self-managing high-speed data array with simplified RAID-like qualities, all in a handsome, compact enclosure– AND easier to use than an iPod Shuffle! Does the Drobo actually deliver all this awesome-sauce? Well, for the most part yes, at least in this first chapter of my product review– I’ll explain later. Note: At the time of this writing, Data Robotics has unveiled the big brother to the Drobo line: The eight-bay, rack-ready DroboPro.
Data Robotics takes a page from Apple when it comes to packaging: Quite slick. It’s not the same fit and finish that Steve Jobs would be proud of but you can tell this company pays attention to subtle details. Speaking of details, the Drobo is built solid with a metal finish and a magnetic faceplate that pops snug into place. Data Robotics was nice enough to include both a USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 cable to connect the device to a host system. For our use we kept the FireWire cable and shelved the USB one, since its really only useful for “dumb” devices like printers, mice, and non-DMA intensive data stores.
The Drobo’s front housing has the drive bays with four simple eject latches and some indicator lamps. Four lamps, one beside each drive bay, are lit either green, yellow, or red depending on the health and capacity of the respective inserted drive. Below the drive bays are some simple status lamps and a row of lights which indicate the total used space of the storage array. Beyond that there isn’t much more to monitor and the short summary of directions is printed right on the inside of the magnetic faceplate. As Cali Lewis said on the demo video, “that’s as technical as it gets!”
I have to admit, you can’t really just plug this thing in and go crazy sans user manual. It’s not an iPod Shuffle, folks! There are some important details to note during installation, one of which will affect your long-term workflow, so you’ll want to unwrap the instruction booklet that most DIY buffs toss aside.
One installation screen casually asks to what capacity should the Drobo be formatted, and this one stumped me for a second. Based on the selections, it became obvious that my choice would affect future usage when adding storage.
The Drobo can be formatted virtually to simulate total storage capacity of 2, 4, 8, and 16 terabytes. Yes, even if you only bought two 120 GB drives. The implication here is that if you choose say, 2 TB as the volume capacity, the Drobo will cap that initial “chunk” at 2 TB and split the remainder of the virtual space into another volume. This may be a necessary option for some users as their operating system may not be able to address a device larger than that. If you have a fully 64-bit OS like Mac OS X, this isn’t a problem. However, Data Robotics makes it clear in all its FAQs and during installation that larger virtual volumes require more time to prep and protect on-the-fly. At the top-end (16 TB), volume preparation is said to take 15-30 minutes, a far cry from the mere moments demonstrated by Cali Lewis. If you don’t mind have multiple volumes with a maximum capacity of 2 TB each, choose the smallest size on the installation screen slider. It should be quick to format and faster to update if you swap drives a lot (for what reason, I can’t imagine).
For our use, I chose the 16 TB maximum volume size because we envision rarely needing to swap out drives (except in cases of capacity or drive failure). The lengthy setup time of about 15 minutes was bearable because in the long run I don’t want to hunt down b-roll video clips across multiple mounted volumes.
Okay let’s get down to business: how fast is this unit and is my data really safe? Most benchmarks don’t give me data I can translate to real world usage so I set out with my usual workflow.
35-50 MB/sec read and write speed over FireWire 800. There, that’s all there is to say! In my tests (which are by no means scientific) the Drobo will push about this much data over your 800 Mbps connector to your local computer. The only thing I will note is that I was moving very large files back and forth between the Drobo and a MacBook Pro internal drive (SATA, 7200 RPM). These files ranged in size from 250 MB to a few gigabytes. This, of course, isn’t even close to the theoretical maximum of the interface or the drives in the Drobo and this is due to Data Robotics’ proprietary overhead method doing its thing to keep the data intact over redundant drives. While I lamented about not breaking any speed records, I found that the throughput was more than enough to sustain smooth playback of multiple instances of high-definition video (1080p) locally. I was also able to have multiple remote workstations on my LAN crunch on video projects from the shared Drobo, albeit very clumsily (more on that later).
The Drobo is a solid piece of stand-alone technology that manages itself and your data without the need of an IT department or storage gurus, if you can afford the intial price plus a couple of SATA drives. Because its storage capacity grows over time at your pace, the Drobo is hands-down the best solution for small, fast workgroups. You can add drives of any size at any time… that’s it! You can share the Drobo with your networked computers using the optional DroboShare ($199.00 MSRP) or use your computer’s built-in file sharing capabilities. The Drobo’s speed isn’t spectacular considering the incredible interface it provides but should be more than enough for most SMBs and SOHOs.
You want more to consider? My next review will be a hybrid of Drobo usage and iMovie ’09 editing… over a network! What? How? Yep, it sounds outrageous and crazy but my team has attempted this stunt during our typical workflow. Stay tuned! …And as always, if you have questions or comments about the Drobo, please leave me feedback below or on Twitter.
Enjoy the full set of photos: