My Drobo and I

If you've grown up digital like I have, you've no doubt suffered data loss at some point, large or small. If I turn my head to the left, I can gaze longingly at a pair of 250GB hard drives that were in a hardware RAID0. Were. One of the drives failed, taking with it a significant chunk of my personal video work. The good news is that my data is still on there, the bad is that it'll require just under $1000 to recover---and that's with a discount code.

Ever since that fateful day I've made sure to do a few things to ensure that it never happens again:

  1. Have at least 2 backups on hand: one clone, one Time Machine to make sure my primary computer is never offline for long.
  2. An offsite backup of my primary computer and all external drives. Backblaze does an incredible job of making this happen.
  3. All of my mission-critical work is on a fast RAID1 to ensure that if one drive fails I have time to get another in its place to make sure I can continue working safely.

As a result of my, ahem, involved backup process, I've accumulated a wide array of various hard drive enclosures. I decided that it was time to consolidate them into a larger unit that utilized a RAID5, which is the perfect mixture of speed and reliability.

I shopped around through my normal channels and concluded that an empty enclosure that I could add my own drives to would work best. A few days after I came to this realization, I found a great price on a 4-bay Drobo. It's not your standard RAID. In fact, Drobo calls their system BeyondRAID, which sounds rather ethereal in a nerdy sort of way. Having heard a lot of good things from professionals in the video industry, though, I decided to take the plunge and get one.

The Honeymoon

Let me hand it to Drobo, their presentation is Apple-caliber. Opening the box your Drobo arrives in presents you with the phrase "Welcome to the world of…", flip it open to find their logo emblazoned on the getting started box: "Drobo". You don't get a second chance to make a first impression, and in this regard Drobo understands that a great experience starts before you even turn the device on.

In the Getting Started box there's a backup software disc for PC users, a disc to install Drobo Dashboard for Mac/PC, a sticker, and an instruction manual on the first level. Lift that out and you'll see your Drobo hovering in a padded enclosure, wrapped in a black, branded canvas bag. Nice touch.

It's a sizable enclosure and well-built. The fuselage is aluminum flanked on both ends with shiny black plastic. In a world where every device is trying to be smaller and lighter, it's nice to encounter something of substance. The front panel is held in place by a magnet, with instructions on how to read the indicator lights on the inside. Yet another nice touch.

Setup is three easy steps:

  1. Install the Drobo Dashboard software. Good techies always download the latest version from the website as opposed to installing from antiquated discs.
  2. Insert the hard drives into the appropriate slots. In my case I had three 1TB Western Digital Caviar Black drives.
  3. Plug the enclosure in and connect it to your computer.

Up to this point, color me impressed.

The Honeymoon Is Over

I plug the Drobo in and Mac OS X immediately asks me to Initialize or Eject it. I pick the former and Disk Utility opens. I format the drive and it appears on my desktop, complete with custom Drobo icon. I raise my hands in triumph, for it is a good day to have many terabytes.

From here I launch the Drobo Dashboard software from the menu bar. This is the first problem: a non-native interface. It looks like an Adobe Air app, and if you know me then you're probably aware that Adobe Air and I haven't spoken in a while.

I overlook this for now because the Dashboard seems to be well designed. I look at some of the settings, browse the tools, and familiarize myself with it despite not being sure why I'd ever need to work within it. Comforted by the fact that I'd never really need the Dashboard, I prepare to move my first file: a 6GB camera archive.

I start the transfer and it begins moving at a reasonable speed. Just a few minutes until the transfer is complete. At about the 4GB mark, the progress indicator stops and I hear the Drobo fan spin up a little louder. I was in the midst of organizing my desk so I just let it do its thing, but after 20 minutes of no activity I realized something went awry. I tried to cancel the transfer, but that didn't do anything. After waiting another 10 minutes, I decided I was going to have to pull the plug, disconnecting two drives (they were daisy chained) in the process.

I plugged the Drobo back in and noticed the once-green lights were now each flashing to red and back again. Uh oh. I checked the Dashboard to see what this means and noticed that "Data Protection" was in progress---copying the files across multiple drives to ensure that nothing is lost should one of them fail. Glad to see Drobo takes no chances with my data.

I did a quick search to see what might cause this to happen, whether it was hardware or software related. In the process, I came across an article that said the drives should be formatted by Drobo's formatting tool, not Disk Utility. "Ahhh, Andrew you fool, there's the problem!" I said aloud to no one in particular. I opened the Dashboard app again, clicked Tools, then Format. I remember the next screen was when I started having serious doubts.

"Thin Partitioning"

Drobo's formatting tool allowed me to select volume sizes much larger than the combined capacity of my currently-installed hard drives. Confusing, right?

The gist is this: Drobo wants you to estimate how much space you **anticipate** having as opposed to how much is currently installed. It will create volumes all the way up to 16TB in size even if you only have, as was in my case, 3TB installed.

This makes a bit of sense since you can just throw any number of drives with varying makes, models, and capacities into a Drobo, but it's really kind of pain at the same time since the Finder will report the size you choose as opposed to what you really have. Actually, the Finder always reports the wrong number because it can't factor in what Drobo uses for protection. So while the Finder tells me that of my 3TB drives I have 2.2TB available, the truth as reported by Drobo Dashboard is that there's only 1.8TB available. Funny how much I'm using the Dashboard after deeming it mostly useless not 15 minutes earlier.

After deciding that I'll eventually just have 4TB in there and selecting that option, the lowest available, I formatted the drive. It was quick and easy, no complaints to be had and all three indicator lights were green. Time to move some files!

Come at me, Drobro

I started again with camera archives since they're self-contained files of large sizes and they moved over without a hitch. I moved them over in batches, but we're talking a total of about 35GB. Drobo handled them like a champ. At this point, I was feeling pretty confident that it could handle more, so I started adding folders full of smaller files to it. Things like archived music, comics, PDFs, tutorial videos, and the very few Mac video games I've downloaded over the years. It was approximately 30 additional gigabytes bringing my total used space, accordingly to the sagacious seemingly-more-useful-by-the-second Drobo Dashboard, to just over 67GB.

Then, It Happened

A drive failure. Even with my current backup strategy, that's never something I want to see. Drobo informed me that the drive in bay 2 failed, but it was safe to remove. I did. Drobo then went back into "Data Protection Frenzy™" mode (trademark mine), with the lights flashing green to red, to ensure that everything was safely spread across the two remaining drives. I decided to call it a night while Drobo did it's data protection thing. I left it alone at just after 9pm so it could work uninterrupted. I listened and heard the sound of data moving: the spinning of platters, the moving of drive arms. This comforted me. I went to sleep.

INT. OFFICE - NEXT DAY

I woke up the next morning and glanced over at Drobo as I took a sip of coffee. The lights were solid red on the remaining two drives. I panicked a little.

I opened the Dashboard and it couldn't detect the attached Drobo. It also wasn't appearing on the desktop. Surely this thing didn't eat up three brand new hard drives?

Luckily, it did not. What it did do is freeze up at some point overnight. When? I'll never know. I had to remove the power cord from the Drobo to hard restart it. When I plugged it back in it started as normal and then went into "Data Rave Protection Party Mode™", lights flashing green to red and back again. I almost could hear it saying in its best HAL 9000 voice: "I'm afraid. I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm a... fraid."

Side note: A psychological thriller for an IT person would most definitely involve thousands of lights flashing from green to red, maybe with some amber or yellow thrown in to build suspense.

Drastic Times/Measures

It was then I decided Drobo and I were not a good fit. I didn't care for the software, the concept of "thin partitioning" felt like sorcery (not to be confused with wizardry, which is a good thing), my data didn't appear to be protected, and for the first time I realized something: since first booting the device, the drives have never stopped working.

It's always merrily chugging along, performing some bit of maintenance. That can't be good for the drives, can it? It is actively cooled with a rather large fan on the back, but the drives are stacked so tightly together that little-to-no air flows between them. Armed with this knowledge, it seems like no coincidence that the middle drive failed; surrounded on both sides by fevered siblings.

I stupidly deleted my data from the original drives as I copied over to the Drobo. How dare I trust this redundancy! I needed to get everything back before banishing this machine to the nether realm.

The one good thing that Drobo says during its "Delicious Data Frenzy Feast of Protection Rave™" is that you can still access everything on the device… just don't remove any of the other drives. You got it. I only had 5 total folders moved over, so I decided to just move them right back, one at a time. A few gigabytes into the first folder and "NO SIR!" yells the Drobo as it defiantly restarts of its own accord.

Without going through the list of expletives that poured from my mouth, I will say that I did get all of my files off of the Drobo. One at a time.

The problem I was facing was that the drive was in Data Protection mode while I was trying to move files off of it, so the speeds were painful to say the least. Couple this with the fact that the Drobo was restarting itself every 10 to 15 minutes and you have a real bag hurt on your hands.

I actually recorded the Drobo over the course of an hour just to show you all that I'm not exaggerating. I sped things up a bit, and the astute might notice that I'm actually writing this very review during the recording. It really helped keep my perspective, writing this review while trying to recover some semi-valuable data. It was nerve-wracking thinking that this time the Drobo might not wake back up. Fortunately, it did every time and even now, while disconnected from my machine, it continues its cycle of powered up for 15 minutes, shut down, wake up, repeat. It's like the Prometheus of electronic devices, constantly having its liver devoured by the giant eagle of… well, I'm not actually sure if I can connect those dots.

In the End

I got all of my data back, and RMA'd both the Drobo and the drives. It's unfortunate, because I believe that mine was an edge case, but I can't bring myself to recommend this product even though I believe there's a lot to like (when it works). Since writing this, I've found a nice 4-drive RAID5 enclosure that works using the built-in Disk Utility, reports remaining space accurately in the Finder, and even has a few extra speedy connections (alas, not Thunderbolt).

I hope no one takes this tale of woe as gospel, but more as a caution in picking the right tools that will work best for your situation. Ask friends and colleagues and take marketing claims with a grain of salt. It's your data, make sure it's backed up in a way that makes you comfortable.