With one of my two Maxtor Personal Storage 3200 USB drives starting to squeal, I needed a new home storage solution. Although the Drobo “storage robot”, essentially a friendly home RAID enclosure, has long impressed me, it never fit my laptop-oriented lifestyle. With most of my data on the biggest disks I could cram into my MacBook Pro, it was hard to justify the expense of a RAID solution just for backup. But my home network has changed with the addition of a 2009 Mac Mini server, so it was time for me to pick up a Drobo of my own!
Decisions to Make
I had plenty of great storage options, of course. I could have saved some money and bought a packaged 2-drive unit from LaCie or Western Digital, but these offer no room for expansion or upgrade, and I know that data stored tends to expand to fill all available capacity. Of course I also considered waiting for Iomega’s brand new StorCenter ix4-200d, which might appear to be a Drobo killer. But it starts at $700 and can’t currently be expanded. Plus, I didn’t need all of the Iomega’s features, like iSCSI, file synchronization, and media servers.
My needs were simple, and the Drobo matched them:
- Reliable protection from data loss – Drobo meets this with its multi-drive BeyondRAID technology
- A direct USB or FireWire connection to my Mac Mini server – The updated Drobo offers both USB and FireWire 800 connectivity
- A reasonable price of entry – I purchased my Drobo plus two 1.5 TB drives for just $500
- A seamless upgrade and expansion path – I am sure I will be adding more storage in the future and perhaps replacing the drives I start with
- Quiet, cool, and low-power operation – This unit sits in my home office, and I’m trying to reduce my energy usage
- Reasonable performance – The jury is still out on the Drobo here
I don’t need any advanced networking services, since my Mac Mini is great in this respect. I use iTunes with my AirPort Express and Roku SoundBridge for music, TiVo Desktop and Galleon for video, and host all sorts of virtual machines as needed in VMware Fusion and Sun VirtualBox. Although the vast array of features crammed into the Iomega and other networked devices were intriguing, my experience with the limited practicality of these features on my Linksys NSLU2 left a bad taste in my mouth.
Frankly, I’m tired of hacking things together. This sounds like heresy coming from a true tinkerer like me, but I have work to get done. Although I love to play with gadgets in my off hours, I don’t want to put my work or data at risk just to try some nifty toy. This is one reason I switched to Apple’s OS X on Macs rather than save a few dollars and hack together another home-brewed PC. It’s also why I switched from the Firefly Media Server to iTunes for music: I would rather use a real computer with first-class applications than continually mess with supposedly-compatible products.
The Purchase Process
One great aspect of buying a Drobo (or a Mac, for that matter) is that there aren’t all that many choices to make. There are two models, the 4-drive Drobo and 8-drive DroboPro. The big guy was out of range of my wallet and needs, so I set out to find a good deal on the 4-drive unit. Note that this is revision 2 of the product – the old Drobo was slower and lacked FireWire connectivity. But pretty much anyone selling a new Drobo these days is stocking the latest unit.
First, I checked techbargains.com for sales. I found that NewEgg listed the Drobo for $349 and that there was a $50 mail-in rebate available as well. $299 is an awfully good price for a device with a list price of $399, but I decided to do better.
Electronics buyers really ought to use Microsoft’s Bing shopping search engine for one simple reason: Cashback. That’s right, Microsoft pays you back (after some delay) when you buy items through their search engine challenger. In my case, Bing showed me that I could get an additional $43.20 back if I bought from online retailer, Comp-U-Plus. Although they charge $14.95 for shipping, the total purchase price (after these two rebates) would be an unbeatable $281.74.
Then came the hard disk drives. I was looking at high-capacity, low-power “green” drives, since using high-performance disks in the Drobo would not deliver much more speed. The sweet spot for inexpensive capacity points to 1 TB drives, but careful shopping gets 1.5 TB disks at the same price per GB. I decided on the Samsung HD154UI from NewEgg, which were available at $99 each with free shipping. Bing shopping again delivered a 6% rebate, bringing the total cost for 3 TB of storage to just $186. All together, I have $467.74 invested in my 1.4 TB (usable) storage system, and can upgrade the capacity as needed for about $100. Although many have complained about NewEgg’s haphazard shipping boxes, my drives arrived nestled in plenty of peanuts and bubble wrap.
The Drobo arrived a day before the drives, giving me time to play with it before putting it into service. I was impressed by the fancy Apple-esque packaging, right down to the “designed in California, assembled in China” legend. The Drobo is surprisingly compact yet feels sturdy and well-designed. It comes with everything needed, including both USB and FireWire 800 cables, the latter a welcome addition. Data Robotics did not cheap out when they decided what buyers get for their money.
The front facia is especially slick, with magnets rather than clips holding it on. Each drive bay has a spring-loaded cover and solid mounting system for the disk drives.
On the other hand, the brick-style power supply does not inspire confidence with a loose-fitting plug. I would have preferred an internal power supply on a storage system.
Setup was as easy as I expected: I plugged in the Drobo, connected the FireWire cable, and inserted two spare SATA drives I had lying around. I was able to begin writing to the unit within minutes, and the Drobo worked its BeyondRAID magic to protect my data within a couple of hours.
Living With Drobo
Although everything worked well out of the box, my experience has not been very simple. There may be no warts visible on the slick piano-black finish of the Drobo storage system, but life with Drobo has not been smooth.
- The Drobo is noisy, especially when the fan kicks in. I initially expected to set it up on my desk, but the deafening roar of the fan and constant whir and rattle of the disk drives demands a (well-ventilated!) cabinet placement. I wonder if the company could have added more sound-dampening material.
- The power connector is finicky, sometimes not inserting all the way and even falling out once. This has been a point of concern for me with every other external drive I own as well.
- I have also had an issue with drives not spinning up when I plug the unit in. This could be caused by a low-spec power brick, but I’m using modern low-power “green” hard drives, so that should not be the case. When this happened today (during my noise-induced relocation), the Drobo decided to “fail out” one drive that didn’t spin up, prompting an 8-hour BeyondRAID rebuild and many scary messages.
- I decided to create two extra partitions on my Drobo for Apple’s Time Machine, but this confused the Drobo Dashboard software. The latest version (1.5.1) seems to only see the first partition, so it reported my 800 GB of data as just 19 GB used! Drobo support reassured me that nothing was amiss and suggested using an older version (1.2.4) which did indeed eliminate this bug. I’ll detail my Time Machine setup in a later post, and I hope they get this bug fixed.
- I’ve had odd issues with the FireWire cable, perhaps related to electrical grounding or interference. The FireWire port on the Mac Mini is right next to the Mini-DVI port I’m using with my VGA monitor, and I’ve had some intermittent issues with wavy or flickering video. It’s not clear whether Apple or Drobo is to blame here, though.
- It’s probably not Drobo’s fault, but one of my two brand-new Samsung EcoGreen drives failed just two days after installing it. BeyondRAID kept everything running smoothly and happily accepted a hastily-purchased 1 TB Western Digital Caviar Green drive to protect my data. NewEgg RMA-ed the failed disk drive promptly, so I now have 2.25 TB of usable space.
This sounds like a pretty terrible one-week ownership story, I’m sure, but there is a silver lining: Throughout all of this, the Drobo has remained stable and hasn’t lost data. If I had had half of these issues with a cheap single-drive unit I’m sure I would be restoring from my backup DVDs by now. At the end of the day, the Drobo has worked as advertised. If they can resolve the Dashboard issue, I’ll be happy enough.