Network Attached Storage Review: Data Robotics Drobo FS

Tuesday Aug 31st 2010 by Joseph Moran
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Data Robotics offers network attached storage that's easy and economical for small business owners to maintain and expand.

When it debuted several years ago, Data Robotics' Drobo storage appliance gave small business owners the ability to easily set up a large, redundant pool of storage and to grow it down the road without regard for the manufacturer, rotational speed or capacity of the individual hard drives. But until recently, Drobo was available only with direct-connect interfaces -- USB, FireWire, or eSATA. If you wanted to use it as a network storage device, it required an add-on module for network use.

Now, the $699, five-drive bay Drobo FS sports built-in Gigabit Ethernet for shared data access to Windows, Mac, or Linux computers, which means that networked RAID 1 and RAID 5 has never been so easy. A quick RAID primer -- RAID 1 protects data by creating an exact duplicate copy of it, while RAID 5 essentially creates a shorthand version that you can use to fully reconstitute the original data.

Drobo FS, network attached storage; network storage devices
The Drobo FS can accommodate up to five ordinary desktop SATA hard drives.
(Click for larger image)
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How the Drobo FS NAS Works

Data Robotics calls its data protection technology BeyondRAID, and it involves a combination of both RAID 1 and RAID 5. Exactly how the Drobo FS organizes and protects stored data depends on the number and raw capacity of the disks you use (which ultimately determines the amount of usable storage you wind up with -- more on this later). The upshot: because you don't have to concern yourself with things like drive capacity and performance, you can create and expand your storage using the most convenient combination of disks available at a given time.

Storage devices seem to traffic on their sleek and stylish looks as much as their capability, but the Drobo FS eschews the emphasis on aesthetics with a simple black metal chassis about the size of a two-slice toaster. On the front you'll find an array of indicator lights and, on the back, the Gigabit Ethernet port. What you won't find anywhere are USB ports, which means that unlike many NAS devices, the Drobo FS doesn't support walk-up sharing of, say flash drives, or of non-storage devices like printers or webcams.

Popping off the front panel (which is affixed magnetically) reveals the Drobo's five drive bays, each of which can accommodate a standard 3.5" SATA/SATA II hard drive. Drives simply slide into the Drobo without the need for trays or tools, though it can be a bit of a tight fit and require a bit of elbow grease.

Drobo Setup and Configuration

To get the Drobo FS up and running, we filled four of its bays (with three 1 TB drives and one 250 GB drive), powered it up, and proceeded to run the Drobo Dashboard utility (included for Windows and Mac) which is required to locate and configure the unit. Upon finding our Drobo FS, the Drobo Dashboard software proceeded to download and install the unit's most current firmware, as well as an update for the Dashboard software itself.

It's disappointing that the Drobo FS doesn't support browser-based configuration, as it means you must install Drobo Dashboard on every computer on which you may want to change, or even view the Drobo's configuration.

Each time you run Drobo Dashboard, it prominently displays a large pie chart detailing your device's used/free storage space. From our drive quartet's raw capacity of 3.25 TB, the Drobo FS set aside space for data protection, expansion and system overhead; this left us with a tick more than 2 TB of usable storage (2.04 TB, to be exact). By comparison, were you to fill the Drobo's five bays with 2 TB drives --which are currently as big as hard drives currently come -- the combined 10 TB would translate into about 7.25 TB of usable space. Check out this capacity calculator to determine the Drobo's capacity with a given combination of drives.

Drobo Dashboard puts forth a rather short and straightforward set of configurable options. For starters, you can create user accounts and shared folders and assign read access to the former and read/write access to the latter.

On the other hand, you can't organize your users into groups, and the software doesn't automatically set up a personal folder for a user when you create a new account, both of which can make setting up folders and permissions for a large number of users somewhat cumbersome.

From the Dashboard program, you can shut down, restart or reset your Drobo FS back to its factory-fresh condition, spin down its drives for power savings after a certain amount of idle time (or not spin them down at all), and opt to receive email alerts for important/critical system events. The Drobo Dashboard software can also display pop-up system messages while it's running, and in Windows, conveniently map shared folders to drive letters in one mouse click.

Expanding and Replacing Network Storage

Like its non-networked forebears, what really makes the Drobo FS shine is how painlessly you can replace a bad drive or expand capacity without having to partition drives or temporarily migrate data off the unit as you normally do with conventional RAID storage. Case in point: when we popped a 1.5 TB drive into the Drobo FS's remaining empty bay, it was online and available within less than 30 seconds with the Drobo Dashboard promptly reporting an extra .79 TB of usable capacity for a total of 2.95 GB.

 Drobo Dashboard software, network attached storage; network storage devices
To configure the Drobo FS or to view detailed information about its available storage capacity, you need the Drobo Dashboard software.
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We then initiated a large (10 GB) file transfer to the Drobo FS while streaming high-definition video from the device, and then yanked a random drive to simulate a failure. As expected, both operations proceeded without interruption or any perceptible decrease in performance. Upon replacing the "bad" drive -- which turned out to be the 250 GB one -- with a new 1.5 TB drive, the Drobo FS began its data rebuild process (it took about 30 minutes for us, but times will vary based on how much data is on the unit) in the background and updated its usable capacity to 4 TB.

You can keep tabs on the Drobo FS's status without having to fire up the Drobo Dashboard. Each drive bay has an indicator light that tells you the status of the drive and by extension, the device's overall condition.

Healthy drives naturally show green, failed drives blink red, and when the Drobo FS reaches 85 or 95 percent capacity, a solid yellow or red light (respectively) appears next to the bay that requires a new or upsized drive. There's also a row of 10 lights at the base of the Drobo FS that provides a rough gauge of the unit's available storage -- each light represents 10 percent of storage in use.

If you're willing to sacrifice some capacity to gain even greater data protection, the Drobo FS offers a useful dual-redundancy feature. It's turned off by default, but when activated via Drobo Dashboard it redistributes data across drives in such a way that it can withstand two drive failures instead of just one.

When we turned on dual-redundancy, the background conversion process (which took about two hours) knocked our Drobo FS's capacity down from 4 TB to 2.70 TB. We then promptly pulled two of the Drobo FS's five drives while it was copying files and streaming data, but there was nary a hiccup from the unit. Another nice aspect of the dual-redundancy feature is that it's reversible; you can deactivate it at any time if you need the extra space.

The Drobo FS lacks many of the features that standard in small office networked storage devices, such as FTP, iTunes or UPnP/DLNA streaming media servers. Although not features a business is likely to need, these and other features are available via free DroboApps add-ons (see the complete list). Because they're community-created, however, they're not supported by Data Robotics. Also absent is any way to remotely access data stored on the Drobo FS. (Data Robotics says that's coming later.)

Although the $699 price tag for an empty Drobo FS is steep, it becomes more palatable once you consider that you can fill it with the least expensive drives you can find (spacious 1 TB drives, for example, can be had for less than $70 online). Even better, the flexible upgrade path lets you buy the most economical drives today -- rather than pay a premium for larger sizes -- and take full advantage of the ever-falling cost per GB. After all, it's a safe bet that a given capacity drive will be cheaper in 6 or 12 months than it is today.

The Drobo FS is pricey, and it doesn't have all the features of even lower-priced competitors. But if you're looking for a networked storage device that offers both storage protection and no-hassle, cost-effective future expansion, it's the one to choose.

Price: $699 (without hard drives)

Pros: Simple setup and painless expansion or replacement of storage via ordinary SATA hard drives; dual-redundancy feature protects against two drive failures

Cons: Pricey; device configuration performed via software utility rather than Web browser; doesn't support shared printers or walk up device sharing via USB; lacks remote access feature

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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