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Data storage device maker Drobo claims its Drobo FS file server is the perfect storage solution for the small office, home office, and "connected home". The company calls it a simple and safe network-attached storage device that provides redundancy without all the complexities of RAID. Sounds good. But the Drobo FS has been criticized for being slow. So I took a look and did some informal tests of my own.
I found that my own complex RAID 5 home setup with Windows Home Server was at least twice as fast as the Drobo. But unlike a RAID, the Drobo FS is very easy to set up--and easy to upgrade when you need more storage. It's also green, using a lot less power than a RAID. It might not be blindingly fast, but it does one thing very well: It makes it easy to protect your data.
My out-of-box experience
The Drobo FS comes with a nice cover, an AC adapter and power cord, a CAT 6 Ethernet cable, a manual, and management software on disc.
The front cover attaches via magnets so you'll never need tools to install or exchange a drive.
Inside the front cover is a cheat sheet for deciphering the different colors of the unit's "actions required" lights positioned next to each drive.
The bottom row of LEDs indicate power, drive activity, and percentage of space used.
On the back is a power switch, a Gigabit Ethernet port, and the power port.
The Drobo is very simple to get up and running. Simply add it to your network via the supplied Ethernet cable; insert up to five hard drives of any size and make; plug it in; and turn it on. The final step is to install the Drobo Dashboard software from the enclosed CD.
The Dashboard app lets you configure the Drobo FS just the way you want. It took me only a few minutes to figure out the app and get the Drobo ready to accept data.
With Dashboard you can choose your network options, change the admin password, set up alerts, and choose a hard drive spindown time.
The Dashboard also provides some good visual tools for viewing available hard drive space and the amount of space being used for redundancy.
Shares and users both are easy to set up. Click the shares to add shares and assign users to those shares via the screen below.
The status page gives you everything else you need to know about the FS: serial number, firmware revision, and used and free space. There's also a nice graphical representation of the hard drives and their sizes.
Drobo's data protection scheme, called BeyondRAID, takes the guesswork out of trying to choose what RAID level should be used with your hard drives. It automatically uses the best possible method of protection for the drives that are inserted. I've always liked the ability to have a "hot spare" drive in a RAID--a drive that sits there unused until a drive fails and then it leaps into availability for the array to rebuild. But as a cost-conscious home user I've never liked having a drive in my array that I couldn't use for storage. With BeyondRAID, the Drobo gives you a hot spare without forcing precious drive space to sit idle.
But increasing storage capacity is perhaps BeyondRAID's most ingenious feature. It's mind-blowingly simple--you don't have to make any configuration changes with software or shuffle data around to accomplish it. All you do is locate the smallest hard drive, pop it out, and insert a larger drive. That's it. The Drobo FS will take a moment to rebuild with the larger drive; in the meantime, all your data is still accessible.
Unfortunately, there's no option for offsite file protection with the Drobo FS. (The DroboPro FS, now called the Drobo B800fs, includes Drobo Sync so you can sync to another Drobo product that can be local or remote.)
Calculate the best drive combination
If you've already been experimenting with redundant storage as I have, you probably have at least one or two spare drives lying around. The Drobo will use these with no problem, but I was curious how my odd assortment of drives would match up--overhead wise--compared with five brand new drives. A calculator on the Drobo website lets you simulate adding hard drives to a specific Drobo chassis and view how much actual disk space will be available for use and how much will be used for data protection.
To my surprise I found that adding drives of the same size increased available space. For instance, plugging in five 2TB drives gave me 7.26TB of useable disk space--or roughly 80% of the actual size of the drives after formatting. The remaining 20% is used for redundancy. But if I plugged in a range of drive sizes, I netted only 67% useable space. Bottom line: you'll want to think twice about using any smaller drives you might have lying around.
Putting the Drobo FS to the test
I tested both speed and redundancy. I loaded up the Drobo FS with five 7200-rpm hard drives of various sizes. My test PC was a Windows 7 system equipped with a 2.7-GHz Athlon 64 5200 processor and 4GB of RAM. I performed two types of speed tests using the RichCopy 4.0 utility. In the first, I copied 500 small files to and from the Drobo. In the second, I copied a 4.3GB image in order to simulate transferring a large software package or big digital photo from a DVD.
I performed the tests in two configurations: with the Drobo connected directly to my test PC with the Ethernet cable, and with both the Drobo and PC connected to my network via a HP Procurve Gigabit Ethernet switch. Finally, just to see how the Drobo might stack up to a RAID, I copied the same files over my Windows Home Server network equipped with three RAID5 2TB drives.
My results? Competing with itself in two scenarios, the Drobo was just as fast over my network as it was directly connected to a PC. But as expected, my RAID was much faster than the Drobo. It took only a couple of seconds to copy the 500 files, compared with 5 seconds to copy the files from the Drobo and 13 seconds to copy them to the device. The bigger the file the longer you'll wait. It took over five minutes to copy the 4.3GB image to the Drobo, compared with two minutes and 40 seconds for the RAID.
Drobo does great redundancy
To see if I could make the Drobo lose data or crash, I simulated a drive failure. Yep, I started pulling drives out. I yanked out one and let the Drobo almost finish rebuilding, then I pulled out another. I would let the Drobo rebuild some more--and then yank the same drive again. I tried to get it into a state where it could not recover by failing two drives one after another. The Drobo juggled these emergencies with no problem. Not only was all the data I had previously written to the Drobo still intact, I could even access that data while pulling out the drives.
The backup software that comes with the Drobo, called Drobo PC Backup, works great once you get past the wizard, which is strangely confusing, especially in the first few screens. For instance, the first screen has a clickable Next button as well as a link that sets up a new backup plan, both leading to the same screen. Why have multiple options for the same step in something as important as setting up your first backup?
The redundant links problem continue on the second screen. The "Click here to get started" link and the next button lead to the same screen.
The next screen's link, "Show me which folders will be backed up," actually displays useful information. The next button performs its expected duty of taking you to the next screen.
The backup app does a good job of automatically selecting the most important folders to back up.
I prefer to select folders myself, though.
The next screen allows you to choose a destination for the backup. If you have not already created a share on the Drobo FS for this backup, now would be a good time to do so! You can also back up to network path, but there is not a browse function so you have to know the path by name. Mapped drives show up automatically.
The Drobo then lets you set the frequency of the backup.
The advanced backup options, versioning and incremental, are good to have, though I saw no help for the less tech-savvy to figure these out.
Once you've successfully chosen all your settings, you'll see this screen.
You're now ready for your first backup.
Scrolling through the backups for a restore is a neat process where you can go back in time and see files from days past.
The Drobo also works with the Mac Time Machine; in fact, it was one of the first out of the gate in providing firmware updates for OSX Lion compatibility.
Applications can be run on the Drobo FS to enhance its capabilities--though you wouldn't know this by looking at the Dashboard. It does have a setting to enable apps, including one that makes the Drobo a media server. But you should start this process with a little reading at the Drobo website. It's not intuitive for non-technical users--you can't even access installed apps from the Dashboard; you have to dig up the IP address of the Drobo FS and access them through a browser. It's surprising that Drobo hasn't partnered with someone to make the home media server option a smoother process. It's much easier to use the Drobo with Windows Media Center or a Boxee Box. Any media player that is able to map a network share should be able to see the FS on the network and access the various media stored on it.
I'm always curious to know how much power my devices consume (not that it would ever stop me from using them). Case in point: my Windows Home Server 2011 draws 130 watts at idle as measured by my Kill-A-Watt meter. The Drobo FS? It drew 44 watts at idle, 46 watts during a read test--and 15.7 watts at hard drive spindown. If you can tolerate a little wait for the hard drives to spin back up, there is a big difference between the power consumption at idle and in use. Compared to my eight-drive behemoth of a home server, the Drobo is a power miser.
Truth? At first I wasn't very impressed with the Drobo FS. But I came to appreciate it. I'll admit that I'm accustomed to a very different method of data protection and home storage options, and the RAID 5 array in my Windows Home Server halves the time Drobo FS takes to do the same operation. I've tested and used other NAS products with more speed and more features. Most even do it more cheaply than the Drobo FS.
But nothing beats the Drobo's ability to protect data combined with ease of use. This funky-looking hybrid might get you from point A to point B in a very different way from a standard RAID system, but it does it safely and efficiently.