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Drobo – More technology that just works.

Posted by markharrison on September 24, 2008

Time for another of my irregular posts about technology.

Like many people who run their own businesses, it’s more than me who needs to get at our files, so we need some kind of “server”. Of course, the machines sold as servers cost an arm and a leg, because what you’re actually paying for is resilience, not only, but mainly in hard disks (on the basis that moving parts are the bits that fail, and a typical PC has moving parts only in the fan and the disks) – if one hard disk fails, the machine flashes up a warning, but keeps on working, because the data is stored in more than one place.

The technology that does is called RAID. RAID stands for “Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks”, which is all very well up to a point… except that the majority of server manufacturers seem to think that the word “Inexpensive” is intended as a gag, and use expensive SCSI or even SAS disks.

Apart from using expensive disks, the other problem with nigh on all of these RAID solutions is that you need to set the “disk arrays” up once, and then not touch them. It’s typically hard (read, expensive, specialist IT support person) to make arrays larger.

Those of us with normal PCs use the much cheaper IDE disks, of which the most recent generations are called SATA1 and SATA2 (the previous generations were called things like ATA-133, ATA-100 and so on.)

So, wouldn’t it be nice if you could have a solution that did three things:

  1. Use the cheaper SATA disks
  2. Allow you to upgrade it easily, just by adding an extra disk
  3. Sit as an EXTERNAL drive, connected by USB or FireWire, rather than being something that involved taking apart the PC [Yes, I know that nice servers have caddy-mounted disks that can be removed without a screwdriver, but these fall into the “expensive” end of servers]

Enter Data Robotics – who make a product called the Drobo.

I was put on Drobo by two different people I trust. Firstly, Nik Butler of LoudmouthMan had raved about it when we met up a few months ago.  Nik’s got a long-term supportability mindset, as a result of having worked in IT for many years, so I knew that anything he recommended was going to be good. However, he is willing to spend long periods getting stuff to work in the first place, so a recommendation from him didn’t give “just works” cred. Enter Mark McCall of AutomatedHome, who’s no technological dunce, but does have an “I don’t want to waste time getting stuff working – I like it just to work” mindset. His review of the Drobo also gave a thumbs up.

This meets my three requirements, and it has a funky feature that most high-end RAID arrays don’t – you can upgrade it very easily.

Basically, it’s a black box that plugs into your PC – it works whether you run Windows, Linux or use a Mac. The version I bought last week is the newer one that has a Firewire option, although I use USB. The front is magnetic (I assume), in that it pulls off without any fiddling, and slips back into place nicely. Once the front is off, there are four slots, and you have to put a (SATA) hard disk into at least two of them. The good news is that the drives slide straight in – there’s no messing with cables or finding that you need a power adaptor cable because the power supply in your PC has the wrong fitting!

I put in a couple of Seagate drives, because I’ve had good experiences with Seagate in the past, though there’s no particular reason why the drives should be from the same manufacturer – Drobo lets you mix and match.

Because it’s copying the data onto multiple drives, the combination of two drives, each 500Gb, only gave me a total of 500Gb usable space… but the reassurance that I would never have to shell out hundreds to a data recovery firm again (I only did once!) to get back data after a disk crash makes me OK with that.

Another nice feature of the Drobo is that to upgrade the capacity, I just need to insert an extra disk, and (after flashing its lights for a while), Drobo just sorts it out – no new drivers, no reconfiguration – just insert the drive and wait (oh, and you can use the PC while it’s doing it – just don’t pull the disk back out until the light’s stopped flashing.)

A result of this means that the economics are upside down compared to traditional RAID arrays – with them, you tend to buy the biggest disks avaialable, because the expensive part is the downtime and technician time required to upgrade. With Drobo, I stuck in a couple of 500Gb disks because they were enough, and cheap… and I can buy a 1Tb disk to add when prices have fallen another 50%… and a 2Tb disk after that when prices have fallen again…

… at that point, the Drobo’s slot will be full, which is where the REALLY clever bit comes in… To upgrade beyond that, I can simply pull out the smallest drive, and replace it with a bigger one… and again, Drobo will just sort everything out.

Overall, it’s an amazing bit of kit – it’s “Apple-like” (in a good way), in that the packaging is well thought out, the instructions are very, very straightforward, and the product’s straightforward enough that actually I was able to plug it straight in WITHOUT needing to use the instructions 🙂

Full marks to Umesh at Data Robotics UK, who answered my questions, and was helpful throughout. I bought mine from CanCom, who were likewise good on the phone pre-sales, and delivered well and fast. The hard disks came from regular Mark Harrison supplier –
Overall, well recommended.

Oh, and as an aside – it’s plugged into my Mac Mini, which I’m finding great. My only reservation about plugging it into the Mac had been that the Mac formats the drives in a Mac-specific way, rather than in standard NTFS, like the Linux and Windows boxes can use. Hence, with only one Mac in the house, I had been tempted to put the Drobo on a Windows PC… However, Mary announced that she’d like a new PC, and would prefer a Mac, so we’re now a two Mac household… This of course means that if mine were ever to fail, I could just plug the Drobo into her’s 🙂


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