Review: Drobo Hard Drive System First Look

Drobo with Faceplate On

Field recordists are relying on higher sampling rates to record sound effects. 96 kHz, 24-bit recordings are standard. At Airborne Sound we record all our sound effects at this HD rate, and the majority of our library is high-resolution as well.

The problem is that these higher rates fill hard drives faster.

Every few years I found myself trading up for bigger external drives.

And then I heard about Drobo. Drobo is an American company that makes external storage cases that work in a unique and interesting way.

I’ve had a Drobo for a few months. Here is my ‘first impressions’ review of the Drobo 4.

I’ll start with an overview, then showcase some images and conclude with some pros and cons.

What is a Drobo?

The Drobo is a storage case for internal 3.5″ hard drives. This isn’t a new concept. Drobo, however, does four things differently:

  • it allows you to use many hard drives to combine into one big pool of storage
  • it allows you to use any mix of hard drive sizes
  • it provides a new type of RAID-style redundant backup
  • it allows you to ‘hot-swap’ drives in and out at any time

What does this mean?

It means you will have a drive that is ‘never full and never fails.’

It means you can fill a Drobo with any combination of internal hard drives, removing and adding them at any time, and have a fully redundant backup if any drive fails.

To do this, Drobo uses something called BeyondRAID.

A bit about RAID

RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) is a technology designed to let many drives work together to create a huge amount of storage.

The ‘redundant’ aspect means that the data is in essence duplicated. The duplicate is tucked away behind the scenes and is used when the original data drive fails. This mirroring is performed by the RAID and occurs completely in the background.

This is done because even the best hard drives die over time. Because RAID duplicates the data, a single hard drive can fail and your data will be safe. The backup data copy on the RAID’s alternate drive will be substituted for the damaged drive seamlessly.

Drobo’s BeyondRAID is different from typical RAID arrays in two important ways:

  • you can add more drives to Drobo and increase the total size over time. Start with 500 Gb, then add 2 Tb a month later. A typical RAID locks you in to your initial drive set up
  • when a RAID drive fails, you need to replace the damaged drive ASAP before more data is corrupted. BeyondRAID protects against this. Up to three drives can fail before losing data

Why use Drobo?

I had been finding my sound libraries spread across a number of external Lacie drives. I also had many random-sized internal hard drives lying around from previous upgrades: a 1.5 Tb, a 2 Tb and a 500 Mb.

I wanted to bring everything together. This is where Drobo excels. Drobo creates one massive pool of storage that can be expanded at any time. Getting low on space? Just buy a new drive and slide it in.

This is especially helpful since internal hard drives are always cheaper than external drives.

A big pool of storage is great for massive sound library collections. It’s also good to use with Time Machine or other incremental backups.

The redundant aspect of Drobo’s BeyondRAID means that even if one hard drive dies, your data is safe. It will let you know which drive to remove. All the while, your data will still be completely accessable.

Drobo is also user-friendly. It is incredibly easy to set up and maintain. In minutes you can create your own mass storage backup.

Drobo hardware

I have the original Drobo, which has four drive bays. There are other versions which add more bays, network options and different interfaces.

The Drobo case looks cool. It will look very slick sitting on your desk. It’s made of thick plastic and feels solid and reliable.

Drobo with Faceplate On
Drobo with Faceplate Held Away
Drobo with Faceplate Off

The lights on the front of the Drobo tell you drive status at a glance. Blue lights at the bottom show the current capacity: each light indicating an additional 10% full.

Each drive bay has an oblong light which indicates the health of the drive in green, yellow (add more space soon), red (add space now or replace drive).

To add or remove drives you simply remove the magnetically-attached front faceplate and slide the drive in. One warning: as soon as you insert the drive it is formatted. No windows appear asking for confirmation; the new drive is erased immediately. It is ready to use in under a minute.

Drobo while Inserting Drive
Drobo with New Drive In
Drobo with New Drive In, New Size

The Drobo has two Firewire 800 ports and a USB 2.0 port. I’ve had bad experiences with some hard drive jacks in the past: cables can sit in the ports loosely. Not so with the Drobo. Like the rest of the unit, construction is solid.

Power is provided by a power brick. The Drobo arrives with its own high-quality Firewire and USB cables so you’ll have all you need in the box.

Drobo software

Drobo uses software called Drobo Dashboard to interact with the drive. Drobo requires you to install the software to format your first drives. It allows you to set the Drobo as one single device, or to create partitions.

Afterwards, you can use Drobo Dashboard to monitor your capacity and the health of drives. The software, incidentally, is gorgeous.

Drobo Dashboard Full
Drobo Dashboard Full Pie
Drobo Dashboard Full Line

You can also perform admin functions like formatting, renaming, diagnostics, etc. You can park the drives by using the ‘standby’ option. This protects the drives when transporting the Drobo.

Drobo Dashboard Tools
Drobo Dashboard New Drive Pie Chart
Drobo Dashboard New Drive Line

‘Drobo Copy’ allows you to create ‘tasks’. A task schedules copies of a folder to the Drobo. The first time the task is run, it will copy everything in the folder. Thereafter it will only copy new or updated files in that folder. I didn’t use this function but it seems pretty simple.

The Drobo Dashboard also automatically checks for firmware updates.

Drobo Pros and Cons

Highlights

  • ease to use – simple to get up and running. Add or remove drives on the fly without powering down. Just remove the magnetically-attached front faceplate and add/remove
  • construction – well made. Solid jacks, drive bays and case
  • reliable – months of regular use and not a single problem
  • aesthetics – it looks incredibly slick. Design is top notch. Thoughtfully made
  • simple, solid software

Caveats

  • the Drobo’s fan is loud. Not obnoxiously, jet engine-loud, but loud enough to be a problem to sound editors if it is nearby. The fan doesn’t run all the time but when it does it is too loud for sound editing in my opinion
  • while the Drobo can add any configuration of drives, using mismatched drive sizes results in unusual total capacities. Use their capacity calculator to gauge things accurately
  • the Drobo is a bit bulkier than I expected. While the design itself is impressive, it’s long and squat

Have a question or comment about the Drobo? Leave comments below.



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