Posted by Derek
Oct 28 2009
Drobo dashboard showing available space.

I recently discovered that, despite the two dozen or so dead hard disks I have in a cardboard box, I had no actual place to store files and not have them disappear when the inevitable drive failure comes. After my recent catastrophe with DropBox (which, I must say, turned out to be not their fault) I determined a second backup device would be an excellent addition to my collection of blinking lights.

Back in “the day,” when I was still running a linux box in the corner as a web and file server, I kept my data safely on a RAID-5 array. The card and drives still work fine, but it’s a little cramped both in terms of storage (800gb) and air circulation (PATA cabling makes me weep). I wound up having to delete over 200GB of archived videos to save things that were more important at the time. It’s been quite some time since I’ve had the box with the RAID booted up, mainly since it sounds like a turboprop plane taking off and uses slighly less electricity than the state of New York.

I tossed my quandary to a crack investigative team (read: Facebook friends). I could either get a new card (I was looking at the Areca 1222) compatible with my current OS/hardware combination, invest in a NAS box, get some sort of generic external RAID box connected via USB, 1394A/B, E-SATA… Or get this droll little device I’ve been hearing rave reviews about all over the place called a ‘Drobo.’

The first responder replied: “Drobo http://www.drobo.com “

After a short go-round we determined that he’d made that recommendation without reading the entirety of my question. The fact that he linked it without knowing I’d been considering it I took to be a good sign. There’s now one sitting on my shelf.

Setup was pretty painless. Unboxing it was a novel experience - instead of the standard antistatic plastic baggies, the Drobo (and its sister box that turns it from DAS to NAS) was enclosed in a cloth bag. I didn’t have any SATA drives to spare that weren’t flagged as ‘failed’ so I also snagged four 1.5TB Western Digital Caviar Green’s for a buck under $100 each. The drives slide in - no screws or carriers or anything, just push them in like an old VHS tape. Connect power, plug in a data cable (USB or 1394B; I’m using the ‘94B link for the initial speed of populating the disk) and you’re off and running.

The initial setup seems to require their software to be installed, but I didn’t tinker much to see if I could work without it. The strangest part to get used to during the setup is choosing a volume size. You don’t pick a volume based on your current capacity - you pick a size based on where you expect your needs will be as well as where storage technology is going. The unit can create a volume as small as 2TB and as large as 16TB.

I didn’t really understand how the sizing worked when I was investigating the product, but it makes more sense now that I’ve played with it. The physical storage limits only your current maximum capacity. The wonder of this machine is that you can take out your existing (small) drives and install a replacement (larger) drive. The unit will automatically upsize the usable space without having to push any buttons or run any strange commands.

This is why it’s a good idea to tell it to create a larger volume at the start. When you install those larger drives, you don’t have to reformat/extend the array. It just automatically adds to the pool. If you install more capacity than the volume size you’ve created can contain, it automagically creates a second volume on the device.

The ‘Dashboard’ app proceeded to ask me what filesystem I wanted to use: HFS+ (for mac use), NTFS (Windows use), EXT3 (Linux use), or FAT32 (most cross compatible). All the formats are accessible to any OS flavor if you’ve got the box connected to your network with their NAS device, but since I’m mainly using it with OS X machines I let it set up HFS+. If I need to store things from windows I’ll do it across the network.

Format took about 10 minutes for an 8TB slice, as it set up the data protection. When I finished I was told I had 4.01 TB / 5.5 TB available (One disk used for redundancy; also, the ‘apparent loss’ during math conversion in ‘is it base two or ten?’). I was getting about 30MB/sec on 1394B writing to the unit. Neglected to test read speeds just yet.

All in all it doesn’t look half bad sitting on the shelf - four green lights change color depending on if there’s a disk problem or the array is rebuilding or whatever, and a line of blue lights across the bottom indicate how much of the current capacity is in use. It’s also using a great deal less power than had I set up a dedicated PC to run a file server again, and the NAS unit can let you run some basic services off the box as well.

Now what to do with the remaining 3TB…

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