Thoughts on the Drobo

December 23, 2007

Last week the inevitable finally happened, and one of the drives in my RAID-0 array (attached to a PC I keep pretty much just for file serving) started to fail. Since I built it a few years ago the RAID has pretty much been temporary, until I could find some sort of redundant storage system I liked at a good price point. I never really reached the point where I found something I loved, but since I was forced to choose I ended up purchasing a Drobo from Newegg.

The Drobo is pretty simple. It’s a USB 2.0 storage enclosure with room for 4 SATA drives. Although the Drobo doesn’t use a traditional RAID, it’s fully protected storage. It doesn’t matter what size or type of drives you use with the Drobo either; the firmware makes the best use of whatever mixed drives you put in, and you can add or upgrade drives at any time.

I considered several options before settling on the Drobo, including the ReadyNAS NV+, G-SAFE RAID, and many types of external drives, enclosures and RAID devices (as well as building another, low power file server using Linux or Windows Server). The problem with the ReadyNAS and most other RAID enclosures was price; most of the ones I was considering cost between $600 and $1000, not including drives. Building a Linux server with used hardware would have probably been the cheapest option, but part of the goal was to reduce my power bill and have something that didn’t take up a lot of room or make a lot of noise (and although it wouldn’t take much time to setup and administer a new server, it’s also something I could do without).

At $500 the Drobo isn’t cheap, but it also comes in below the cost of most alternatives. The lack of network support was disappointing, but I’m only really using my MacBook Pro these days, and I wanted direct attached storage for bootable Time Machine support, so that wasn’t a big deal. Looking at other reviews, the only real downside to the Drobo is the performance. The Drobo is USB 2.0 only, but from what I’ve read even if it had a faster FW800 bus the firmware itself would still limit performance as it mirrors data across drives. I haven’t done any real testing, but I did try playing a movie in VLC while doing several file copies to the Drobo. There were no performance issues, which is good; most of what I’m using this for is media storage. Resuming and suspending a VMware Fusion virtual machine on the Drobo was noticeably slower than my MacBook Pro’s internal drive, but once started the VM’s performance seemed fine.

The Drobo looks nice too, unlike 90% of other external enclosures out there. Other than being a little long, it’s a small box and doesn’t take too much room on my desk. The LED indicator lights on the front panel were a little bright, but that was easily solved by taping some paper underneath the removable front panel, over the LEDs themselves (and it’s easily removable if I ever sell it or change my mind). The Drobo is also quite, it’s internal fan is variable speed and makes very little noise under normal operation.

Since I’m using the Drobo for Time Machine backups I decided to create two partitions. The Drobo will report 2TB of available space regardless of how much actual storage is available (in order to dynamically increase storage when you add additional drives), and Time Machine will happily eat away at it until it goes over the available space or there’s no room left for other files. To solve this, I just created a 256GB Time Machine partition and a second 1.75TB partition for storage. Using Disk Utility this is easy, but you do have to be careful to select the correct partition scheme. See this tech note for more information.

Marc Charbonneau is a mobile software engineer in Portland, OR. Want to reply to this article? Get in touch on Twitter @mbcharbonneau.