Drobo Arigato Mr. Roboto

The classic image of a robot as a lurching, metallic automaton has been challenged in recent years by products like the Roomba robotic vacuum, which looks more like an oversized dinner plate than a human being. Now comes the Drobo, a device that looks like an ordinary external hard drive or NAS device but which Data Robotics dubs the world’s first storage robot.

That description may seem like so much marketing puffery, but based on Dictionary.com’s definition of a robot — any machine or mechanical device that operates automatically with human-like skill– it may not be far off the mark. It turns out that the $499 Drobo provides storage that’s considerably easier to configure and upgrade than storage devices we’ve used before.

The Drobo’s compact size and rectangular shape make it look a lot like a toaster. The “bread” — in the form of standard internal SATA-I or -II hard drives from any manufacturer — goes into four bays on the face of the unit that you access by pulling off the Drobo’s magnetically-attached front cover. Unlike most other storage devices with user-accessible bays, Drobo does not require special mounting trays, connectors or cables to connect the drives — you simply slide them into each slot until they click into place.

A large fan channels hot air out the rear of the Drobo, and although we wouldn’t necessarily consider it loud, periodically the Drobo’s fan noise did become noticeable over the din of the nearby PC. You connect the Drobo directly to a PC or a Mac (using NTFS or HFS+ formatting respectively) via USB 2.0 only. We’d like it even more if we could connect through FireWire, eSATA or even Ethernet. The company said that additional interfaces might be released in the future.

You can network the Drobo by connecting it to a USB storage server or NAS device, but since it doesn’t support the FAT32 format, this scenario doesn’t support full access in a mixed PC/Mac environment; a Mac can read but not write NTFS, and Windows doesn’t understand the Mac HFS+ formatting at all.

Storage Configurations
Multi-disk storage devices like the Drobo usually imply some form of RAID, and while the Drobo does use RAID techniques to organize and protect data, it doesn’t do it in the customary way. Most notably, RAID requires drives of identical capacity, but the Drobo has no such limitation. Instead it uses a data storage scheme that aggregates different sized drives into a single volume.

While standard RAID mirrors a pair of disks (RAID 1) or stripes parity data across three or more disks (RAID 5), the method the Drobo uses to protect your data depends on how many drives you use, what their capacities are and how much data is on them. The Drobo safeguards data rather than disks, so depending on the aforementioned variables it can either mirror or parity stripe your data and, in many cases, it will employ both methods — mirroring one set of data and striping across the same disks.

Drobo’s approach to data protection reserves a significant chunk of your overall capacity in order to let the unit reorganize your data as needed. This means that there’s always free space available where Drobo can relocate data in the event of a drive failure. Another huge upside is that this lets you increase the Drobo’s capacity whenever you need to by simply replacing any disk with a larger one. The Drobo can incorporate the added capacity into its storage scheme without any disrupting data availability requiring you to manually rebuild volumes.

Determining how much capacity is left on a standard RAID device after subtracting space used for data protection is a relatively simple calculation — you lose one half of the total with RAID 1 or 10, or 1/x– where x is the number of drives — for RAID 5. Figuring out the usable space on the Drobo isn’t quite as straightforward; especially when you use different sized drives.  Data Robotics offers a graphical “Drobolator” utility on its Web site that lets you calculate the usable capacity based on the number and capacity of drives used. A general rule of thumb is to subtract the capacity of the largest drive used.

Setup and Use
The Drobo comes with sparse printed documentation (the manual is barely a dozen pages), but that’s fine because it really doesn’t require much. The CD includes three videos (complete with a robotic female voice-over) that outline tasks like how to setup the unit and add or replace drives.

We equipped our Drobo test unit with four different-capacity drives (note: you must provide your own drives — the Drobo doesn’t come with any) measuring 80, 160, 320 and 500 GB. After we connected and powered up the Drobo (there’s no on/off switch, so simply plugging it in brings the unit to life) we formatted the drives using the Drobo Dashboard software, a process that took less than five minutes. The 1,060 GB (1.06 TB) of total capacity translated into about 520 GB of usable space reported by the Drobo.

Once it’s formatted, the Drobo gets a drive letter and shows up in Windows as a single external drive, no matter how many drives are installed. In order to accommodate potential expansion, the Drobo always appears to Windows as 2 TB storage device, even if the capacity of installed drives amounts to less. Two terabytes happens to be the maximum size of a USB volume in Windows, so if your installed drives exceed 2 TB— say, three or four 750 GB drives– the Drobo shows up as two 2 TB volumes. It’s worth mentioning that you don’t actually have to use the Dashboard software to format or use the Drobo, but its a good idea since it provides detailed info about the device and includes a tray icon to provide a true reading of how much space you’ve got left.

Drobo makes it easy to upgrade storage capacity by adding or replacing drives, and it automatically recovers data from a failed disk.

Another way to see how much is on your Drobo is by taking a look at the unit itself, because along the bottom of the front facade are a row of ten lights that indicate how much of the unit’s overall storage is in use — each light represents 10 percent of capacity. Each drive bay also has it’s own status/capacity indicator light — when a particular drive is 85 percent full, its light turns from green to yellow (and to red when 95 percent full) prompting you to upgrade the drive to a larger capacity. 

To see how well the Drobo responded to adversity, we filled our unit with over 400 GB of worth of videos and started playing one. After yanking a drive, the video kept playing (albeit after a momentary pause), and the Drobo went into rebuild mode to reorganize data on the three remaining drives. The data on the drive was available throughout the automatic rebuild, including after we replaced the missing drive (the rebuild took approximately 20 hours, though Data Robotics says a forthcoming firmware upgrade will speed up the process). Later, when we ditched the 80 GB drive in favor of an 400 GB one, the Drobo promptly recognized the change and bumped our available capacity from 520 GB to just under 800 GB, all the while maintaining access to our data.

At $499 without any storage (or a bundled backup application, for that matter) the Drobo is pricey, but that price tag seems less daunting when you consider that it doesn’t make you pay premium prices for the largest hard drives in order to have room to grow. Instead, you can buy the most cost-effective drives that meet your current needs, and buy larger drives only as required (and after they’ve inevitably dropped in price).

It’s hard to overestimate the value and flexibility of this feature, especially for those of us who outgrow storage faster than a toddler does clothing. Now if there was only some way to make Drobo clean the floor.

Price: $499
Pros: Uses ordinary internal SATA drives; can easily upgrade capacity by adding or replacing drives; automatically recovers from a failed or missing disk
Cons: Connects via USB only; expensive considering it doesn’t come with any drives; doesn’t include bundled backup utility

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He’s also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he’s currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, Fla. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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