I am an active photographer and am always generating new content.  This hobby necessitates large amounts of relatively fast storage that can scale efficiently.  I prefer NAS storage because I want the ability to share storage between multiple systems.  My initial investment was in a ReadyNAS device from Netgear and more recently, I added a Drobo FS to my Gigabit Ethernet network.  In this post I will discuss the Drobo FS.  In a future write-up, I will compare the Drobo FS to my ReadyNAS device.

Unpacking the Drobo FS:

This is one area where the team have Drobo have done an impressive job.  The device arrives in an unimpressive cardboard box, but once you open it, the experience is Apple-like.  The first thing you see is a jet accessory black box with silver lettering saying “Welcome to Drobo.”  The Drobo array is wrapped in a high quality black bag with Drobo printed on the top facing you.  Very nice!  The packaging gives the device a a high quality consumer electronics feel.

Initial installation:

Let me start by saying that I dislike reading manuals and avoid them when possible.  Fortunately, I am handy with electronics, and the Drobo was exceedingly simple to install.  You simply plug-in the enclosed power cord, Ethernet cable and insert your hard drives.

The one area that I found a bit frustrating was the requirement to install Drobo software on my desktop computer.  NAS boxes are connected to a LAN and all typically run on some version of Linux.  It would be trivial to add an Apache webserver and associated management pages to a Linux-based NAS and indeed this is what Netgear does with the ReadyNAS.  Drobo has taken a different approach and requires that I install software on my Windows computer to configure and manage my Drobo FS.  I find this annoying because I hate cluttering my computer with yet more tray applications.  A colleague suggested that this approach is more secure, but I find it bothersome.

I also ran into a problem where one of my two hard drives was bad.  This was not Drobo’s fault, but rather a Western Digital issue.  However, at the time, I was not sure where to attribute the problem and so I started moving drives into different slots on the Drobo to see if it was a Drobo issue.  The Drobo did not seem to like this and eventually became confused and displayed a message saying something like “Too many drives have been removed please re-insert your drives.”  I could never figure out how to correct the situation and instead performed a factory reset on the Drobo FS.  Everything went smoothly from there, but I learned that my Drobo FS does not appear to like frequent drive swapping or movement.  This is not something that I would expect to do normally, but is an important lesson.

Basic NAS configuration

All of the management and configuration of the Drobo FS is through the Drobo Dashboard.  The software offers a range of features, but hides the majority of useful parameters many layers deep.  For example, if I want to create a new share, I need to do the following:

  1. Open Drobo Dashboard
  2. Choose “Advanced controls”
  3. Choose “Tools”
  4. Choose “Settings”
  5. Choose “Share”
  6. Choose “Add” under shares

I understand that share creation occurs infrequently but the amount of clicks required to access such a basic setting is surprising.  Also, when you change an option, it brings you back to step three and so you need to repeat steps four through six for additional changes.  The good news is that the Drobo FS has all of the appropriate configuration options, but I find the process of accessing and modifying these options unintuitive.

RAID configuration

Drobo is renowned for their BeyondRAID technology and so I was particularly interested in this element and the Drobo did not disappoint.  Once I got past the initial drive issue, I found BeyondRAID to be solid.  Upon inserting the drives, the system automatically built the RAID sets and instantly provided data access.  When I later added another drive, real time data access was maintained while it re-striped the data across the new hard drive in the background.  Very slick and transparent.  Best of all, BeyondRAID is disk agnostic and so you can use drives of any size or manufacturer in the same Drobo.  Nice!

The other feature that I love is Drobo’s new “Dual Disk Redundancy” option.  This is Drobo’s version of RAID 6 and allows two hard drives to fail without data loss.  The cool thing is that BeyondRAID provides this feature as a checkbox.  I simply checked the box and chose okay and the Drobo re-striped the data in the background while maintaining full data access.  BeyondRAID allows you to change between traditional single disk to dual disk redundancy by simply clicking or unclicking the check box.  That is a really nice feature although I anticipate maintaining dial-disk redundancy for the foreseeable future.

Performance

As a photographer, I am frequently transferring large files to and from my NAS devices and so performance is critical.  The Drobo FS performs reliably and consistently, but the performance is slower than my NVX.  The following table illustrates the difference.  (Performance is generated using my home gigabit Ethernet network and running iometer with this iometer.icf file which I downloaded from the ReadyNAS site.)  File journaling is enabled on the NVX.  The ReadyNAS device has two drives and is running RAID 5 while the Drobo FS has three drives and is running dual disk protection.

  Drobo FS ReadyNAS NVX
Read 43 MB/sec 55 MB/sec
Write 31 MB/sec 40 MB/sec

The performance will vary depending the computer and environment and wired gigabit Ethernet is required to achieve these results.

Extensibility

There are a range of DroboApps available.  These are software plugins for the Drobo FS that enable new features and functions such as an Apache webserver.  However, since these software pieces are created by third parties and are not supported by Drobo, I am uncomfortable using them.  In my opinion, it is a bad idea to install unsupported applications since a rogue piece of software could corrupt your data.

Conclusion

My initial experience with the Drobo was a bit mixed given the disk troubles I experienced and the annoyance with the requirement to use Drobo Dashboard for configuration.  However, after using the device for a about a month, my feelings have changed.  Yes, it is not the fastest device on the market, the Dashboard is a bit annoying and DroboApps offer questionable value, but the universal hard drive support, completely automated RAID expansion and dual redundancy features are really quite impressive and I believe that in practice, these are the features that matter the most.

The Drobo FS is a great option for a midrange NAS device that performs reasonably fast and is easy to manage.  It is ideal for the user who wants a plug and play installation experience and the ability to simply and easily grow their environment.  However, if the user’s goal is the fastest possible performance and broadest feature set then the Drobo FS is probably not the best fit.

Disclosure: I purchased my Drobo FS at a discounted price that was offered to GestaltIT Tech Field Day attendees