DroboPro is here, and it’s quite a compelling offering. It’s generating buzz (DroboPro was the number one trend on Twitter for a while on Tuesday) but is it deserving? In a word, yes. But I’m still not going to buy one!
The Drobo for Pros
Just as in Apple’s Mac and MacBook lineup, the “Pro” name denotes more of everything for the pro user or small business. The most obvious addition is four more drive slots, bringing maximum capacity up to eight 2 TB drives or a solid 16 TB of raw storage. Mix in data protection with Drobo’s unique BeyondRAID and subtract disk drive “liars inches”, and you’re left with 10.9 or 12.5 TB of usable capacity.
The difference in potential usable capacity is another Pro feature – optional protection from double drive failure. Nice! Users might be tempted to turn off this RAID-6-ish double parity protection in order to gain a little extra space, but I’d strongly suggest against that. With 8 drives spinning, the system is bound to eat a drive now and then, and good old Murphy’s Law (or the notorious bathtub curve of drive failures) is sure to spell doom for your data without extra protection. I suppose single-drive protection is acceptable for a 4-drive unit, but eight drives drives the risk of loss unacceptably high.
Around back is another major surprise: A gigabit Ethernet port. No, the Drobo Pro doesn’t incorporate the DroboShare’s NAS technology. Instead, the company added a simple and speedy iSCSI stack, bringing some serious performance potential to “the little drive array that could.” The company says that a gigabit iSCSI connection pushes nearly 80 MB/s, easily tripling the throughput of the system’s FireWire 800 or USB ports.
PC owners might be put off by the lack of an eSATA port, but they would be wise to use iSCSI instead. Warning: Watch out for the limited performance of low-end gigabit Ethernet switches! Just about any iSCSI initiator ought to be able to connect to the Drobo, and Windows users will happily use Microsoft’s solid and free software to connect. But iSCSI on the Mac is another matter, and Drobo dropped a bombshell here: They cooked up their own simple software iSCSI initiator for OS X and are offering it free to all! This is shout-out-loud news since functional OS X iSCSI software costs hundreds of dollars from other vendors and Apple’s built-in Leopard iSCSI support is AWOL even in the latest Snow Leopard builds.
On the software side, Drobo remains amazingly simple to configure. You won’t find even a dozen buttons in the management interface, and no tuning or configuration is required. The software continues Drobo’s tradition of presenting all attached storage as a 16 TB drive, regardless of how much is really installed. This means that capacity can grow and shrink as drives are hot-swapped in and out without the connected server even noticing. The Pro does add one new trick: You can tell it to present up to 16 of these fibbing drives to the attached server if you’d like to segment your data a bit. Pro owners can also disable drive spin-down for server use.
Drobo is positioning the Pro model as the perfect small business storage system, and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as bulletproof small-office storage. By far, DroboPro is the simplest storage device to manage, expand, maintain, and install. It’s cheap compared to other 8-drive RAID systems at $1200 empty and can grow to meet the needs of a dozen folks, or one especially productive one, with ease. Connect a Drobo Pro to your Mac Pro and you’ll grin like a little girl who just got her very own pony!
No Drobo For Me
Although I love DroboPro even more than Drobo classic, it’s not for me. DroboPro is exactly what the majority of folks need, but its intentional simplicity means that it wouldn’t work in my home office environment.
You see, Drobo can still only be connected to a single computer. Although the Pro unit sports a total of four ports on the back (two FireWire 800, one USB 2.0, and the gigabit Ethernet), users must pick one and ignore the rest. Even the iSCSI support is limited to serving up a single target. This is not a home SAN. It’s not even suitable as a Time Machine target for two Macs.
Yes, you can share the capacity of a Drobo with NFS, SMB, or AFP using a computer or DroboShare, but that’s not what techies like me want. We want to share its storage directly among a few computers, something the Drobo Pro teases with its iSCSI support but refuses to deliver. And don’t be fooled: The second FireWire port is for daisy-chaining other FireWire devices, not connecting multiple systems.
Do you want to support a mail server and a file server in your small office? Buy two Drobos or combine them into a single computer. But I’m not going to do this at home. Data Robotics also hasn’t yet logo-qualified the Drobo Pro for Windows but it worked fine in their demo. I’d love to see ESX and Hyper-V qualification, too!
Finally, note that not all of these features are trickling down to the 4-bay Drobo. It is obviously not iSCSI-capable, since it lacks both the gigabit Ethernet port and dual-core processing muscle of its big brother. Dual-drive data protection, drive spin-down disable, and multi-volume capability are missing as well, though I’d love to see the latter especially.
Despite these limitations, I would not hesitate to recommend Drobo and DroboPro as the best simple storage available.