Drobo B800i iSCSI SAN Storage Review

Thursday Dec 1st 2011 by Paul Mah
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Small and mid-sized businesses that lack an IT staffer but require hefty storage capability would do well to take a close look at the Drobo B800i iSCSI SAN.

The Drobo B800i is positioned as an easy-to-use and high-performance SAN storage for small and mid-sized businesses.  Though the company gained fame for its prosumer range of direct attached storage devices, the Drobo B800i is designated as a solid business-grade device and certified for use in a multi-host environment.

The product’s basic specifications include:

  • 8x bays for SATA hard disk drives
  • 2x Gigabit Ethernet ports
  • One USB 2.0 port (For management)
  • Dual smart fans for minimum operating noise
  • Rack mount ready (Rack Mount kits old separately)

Note that the two gigabit Ethernet ports do not support link aggregation, a technology for combining two ports into one.

Installing Drobo

You install the Drobo B800i using the supplied USB cable and the Drobo Dashboard software.  The software comes in a bundled CD with the latest version downloadable from the Drobo Support page.  Once installed, the Drobo Dashboard automatically recognizes and initializes a new Drobo device that is connected via USB.  You may want to configure an IP address and set an administrative password at this stage.  You can hook up the B800i to a standard Ethernet network once you configure an IP address, though Drobo recommends a direct connection for better performance.

Drobo B800i iSCSI SANWe were impressed by the presence of an installation card that clearly outlines the steps to setup the Drobo B800i.  However, we were briefly stumped when we tried to connect to the Drobo using an Ethernet cable and the Drobo Dashboard failed to detect the storage array.  A quick flip through the bundled manual showed us where we went wrong: USB is the only option when connecting to the Drobo for the very first time.  This is ultimately a minor matter -- as long as administrators remember to bring along the USB cable when setting up new Drobo appliances.

The Drobo Dashboard

Available for Windows and the Mac OS X, the Drobo Dashboard acts as a single pane of glass for accessing and administrating multiple Drobo Prosumer and Business products from a single tool.  Based on our observations, the software constantly monitors the network to determine the presence of Drobo storage devices, displaying detected appliances and their storage capacities as an icon (or list).

You can select individual devices to view more detailed information or for the purpose of configuring it. Note that you can set an administrative password to protect the Drobo against unwanted modifications.

Below is a partial list of the tasks supported by the Drobo Dashboard:

  • View used and free storage capacity
  • Create new storage volumes
  • Change the disk drive spin-down interval
  • Enable dual disk protection (Set to single disk redundancy by default)
  • Download and install updated firmware
  • Create and schedule automated backup jobs

It is important to remember that the Drobo B800i is really an iSCSI SAN storage device, not a Network Attached Storage (NAS).  Designed to serve as an iSCSI target for servers or as a storage device for power users, the Drobo B800i simply doesn’t come with capabilities one would associate with a modern NAS appliance.  So don’t expect to find frills such as Active Directory support, or built-in services like FTP and web servers here.

Overall, the Drobo Dashboard performed seamlessly in our testing; it automatically discovered and mounted data volumes whenever we restarted or connected our test rig to the same LAN.

Ease of Expansion

The key selling point of the Drobo is undoubtedly its BeyondRAID technology, which was designed to overcome the traditional weaknesses of RAID.  To put it simply, BeyondRAID ensures that data is automatically spread across the pertinent disk drives without the need to configure complicated parameters such as RAID levels or hot spares.  And unlike RAID, BeyondRAID continues to work well even if every disk drive in the array is a different capacity.

In addition, BeyondRAID technology also makes it a trivial matter to figure out the amount of storage capacity that is available for use.  To obtain the total available storage space, subtract the size of the largest installed HDD from the total capacity of all installed HDD.  If dual-disk redundancy is enabled, subtract the size of the two largest installed HDD instead.  Of course, administrators who prefer working with more concrete figures may use Drobo's online calculator.

In practice, this means that we were able to perform an "upgrade" of an existing disk by yanking it out and slotting in a new, larger HDD.  Upon successful rebuild of data on the new HDD (green light), the process can be repeated with the next disk drives to be upgraded.  Upgrading of storage capacity is even faster in the event where spare drive bays are available -- just slot in some new HDDs, and they become available for use practically instantly.  Compared to the error-prone file backup and restore procedures required for deleting an existing RAID volume and creating a new one, BeyondRAID literally makes storage a no-brainer.

Drobo's Minor Weaknesses

The Drobo B800i is a well-polished product that makes storage extraordinarily easy.  As you can imagine, the weakness highlighted here are relatively minor gripes and hardly intractable. When creating a new volume for instance, you will be prompted on whether to create a standard volume or one with multi-host support.  Once created however, there appears to be no way to check whether a particular storage volume was configured with multi-host support or not.

As mentioned earlier, the Gigabit Ethernet port does not support link-aggregation, which reduces the available options for organizations that want to achieve maximum data transfer speeds. It will still be possible to manually load-balance different physical server between the two Ethernet ports, though this can be somewhat of a hassle.

Conclusion

There are many things that we like about the Drobo B800i.  Beyond obvious capabilities such as its BeyondRAID technology, its whisper-quiet operation also means that the storage device can be deployed on a desktop in a fairly quiet office.  Ultimately, we found the Drobo B800i's performance to be adequate despite its lack of link-aggregation. 

The Drobo B800i is available at a retail price of $3,999 without any drives bundled, which is arguably a price point that may deter some SMBs.  In our opinion, the Drobo B800i is ideally suited for businesses where access to robust storage is crucial, but that may not have a dedicated IT staffer.  For these businesses, the ease of management and capability for seamless expansion of the Drobo B800i makes it a truly compelling buy.

Paul Mah covers technology for SMBs for Small Business Computing and IT Business Edge. He also shares his passion for and knowledge of everything from networking to operating systems as an instructor at Republic Polytechnic in Singapore, and is a contributor to a number of tech sites, including Ars Technica and TechRepublic.

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