Data Robotics today launched their sixth product, the business-oriented DroboPro FS file server. Combining the 8-drive chassis from the direct-attached DroboPro with the Linux-based file server engine fro the Drobo FS, the DroboPro FS (or “Pro FS” for short) gives small businesses and remote offices a simple networked location for their shared files. Although it is a bit more expensive than some of the competition, the Pro FS promises to be as easy to set up, use, and grow as previous devices from Data Robotics.
The Drobo I Know
The Drobo line of storage devices from Data Robotics is well-known to readers of my blog. I selected the second-generation Drobo (a 4-drive USB- or FireWire-attached device) as my own home storage solution, and have been very satisfied with it. I continue to recommend the Drobo for its simplicity, reliability, and ease of use. It was simple to set up and has grown with my storage requirements.
One of the coolest features of the entire Drobo line is the “bring your own drive” ethos: It appears as a single large drive (8 TB in my case) and drives can be added and swapped as needed without data loss, migration, or downtime. My own Drobo has grown from two to three to four drives without a hiccup, and has kept my data secure through two hard disk drive failures. I certainly would have lost some of my data by now if I hadn’t invested a few hundred dollars in a Drobo.
The New Drobo Family
No one was surprised when Data Robotics introduced an 8-drive model, the DroboPro, alongside the 4-drive desktop unit they became famous for. But their use of iSCSI was forward-thinking. Although it is only usable by a single connected computer, iSCSI gives the DroboPro more flexibility for rack- or even data-center placement as well as greater performance than the old USB or FireWire ports.
|DroboElite (2x iSCSI)
|DroboPro FS (2x GbE)
|Drobo S (USB/FW/eSATA)
|Drobo FS (1x GbE)
Data Robotics’ product line includes both direct- and network-attached storage with varying levels of capacity and performance
Data Robotics really enhanced their product line in late 2009 with the introduction of two more-capable models, the DroboElite and Drobo S. The Drobo S added a fifth drive slot, dual-drive reliability, and two to three times the performance of the old Drobo when connected with eSATA. I’m seriously considering an upgrade! The DroboElite took the Pro upscale with a second gigabit Ethernet port and multi-server iSCSI support. In fact, the Elite is certified VMware Ready for small-scale datacenter use!
The release earlier this year of the Drobo FS answered pundits (including me) who kept asking for NAS file server capability beyond the underwhelming DroboShare device. Boasting built-in support for Windows (SMB) and Apple (AFP) networks, the Drobo FS shares the 5-drive form factor of the Drobo S, making it a reasonable choice for small offices and home networks. It must have been a hit, too, since the Drobo FS has been in short supply, frequently backordered throughout 2010.
Drobo FS + DroboPro = DroboPro FS!
It wasn’t rocket science for Data Robotics to mix together the DroboPro’s 8-drive form factor with the Drobo FS’ NAS software, and that’s just what they did to produce the DroboPro FS. It brings a bit more computing horsepower to handle filesystem and network protocol access along with a second gigabit Ethernet port for reliability, but the Pro FS sticks to the “keep it simple” ethos.
Simplicity is the heart of the Drobo message. Although built on open-source software (Linux, Samba, and Netatalk), the DroboPro FS software is simple to configure, just like the rest of the product line. This contrasts with the “mess-of-menus” interface used to administer so many competing products! While these other devices try to speak more languages than the United Nations, Data Robotics keeps it simple with SMB and AFP.
The DroboPro FS retains all of the core Drobo features: Dual-drive reliability is an option I recommend for any device using more than four drives. The company’s BeyondRAID software allows drives to be added and swapped with no data migration time, and also lets the Pro FS use whatever make, model, or size of SATA drive is available when you need it. Under the hood, the Drobo software optimizes the layout and checks the consistency of data without operator intervention. In short, like all Drobos, the Pro FS just works.
DroboSync: Synchronize DroboPro FS Units
A major new feature in the DroboPro FS product is DroboSync, software which will synchronize all content on one DroboPro FS to a second Pro FS over LAN or WAN. Similar capability has been available using the rsync DroboApp for quite some time, but Data Robotics promises that DroboSync will be integrated, supported, and simple enough to become a core feature. This is a great addition, and worth a place on the defiantly-short list of DroboPro FS features.
Dubious About DroboApps
The Drobo FS and DroboPro FS, being Linux-based, can run other workloads than the SMB and AFP servers bundled from the factory. The DroboApps page at Drobo.com includes 11 others, from NFS to Apache, rsync to Perl. And the FS models can run other packages developed and supported entirely unofficially.
Although I remain positively enthusiastic about the Drobo products, and recommend them for small offices and professional users, I am less excited about these apps. Even those “blessed” by Data Robotics lack the level of simplicity and reliability implied by the Drobo name. Trying them out brought back nightmares from my old Linksys NSLU2 NAS, and creating a stable environment would probably require the same level of hacking and time.
In the past year, Apple has broken two of the open source packages that run on the Drobo FS, and the result is illuminating. Apple’s changes to Snow Leopard caused issues when using the Drobo FS as a Time Machine target. Since the AFP protocol is a core part of the Drobo FS, the company actively investigated the issue and worked to develop a fix to the underlying open source Netatalk package. Contrast this with the Firefly iTunes server offered in the DroboApps store. When iTunes 10 broke Firefly, it also stopped supporting the Drobo FS. Although Data Robotics is reportedly looking into the matter (login required), a fix has not yet been posted.
Since only the core AFP and SMB functionality is really supported by Data Robotics, it begs the question of the suitability of the other DroboApps packages. Indeed, I would have a hard time recommending reliance on any of these packages for production use. And I suggest that Data Robotics should reconsider whether to officially offer DroboApps at all! They should leave the option for individuals to run these apps on their own, but I do not feel they are of a high enough standard to get a “DroboName” and be listed as product features.
DroboPro FS is a solid addition to the Drobo family, and ought to be on the short list of any small business looking for an integrated NAS solution. The ease of use and simple livability inherent in the Drobo line remains a strong differentiator from the competition. I would like to see NFS promoted to a core DroboPro FS feature, however.
At just under US$2,000 for an empty chassis, the Pro FS is not cheap. Like all of Data Robotics’ products, stepping up to this premium product requires opening up the wallet. Although the Drobo ownership experience is a happy one, it must be difficult for many to justify this premium pricing relative to competing products from Iomega, Thecus, Synology, and others.
A look at the product matrix begs another question: Where will Data Robotics go from here? I imagine a higher-end 8-drive DroboElite FS might be in the works, but I would much rather see a 12-drive rackmount Drobo for larger businesses. Add in some serious CPU power (and maybe some flash cache) and we could have a real challenger in the “M” segment of the SMB market!
Disclosure: Data Robotics sponsored two Tech Field Day events which I organize for Gestalt IT. Their financial support went to that event, and I purchased my Drobo at retail with my own money. I write about them because I am impressed by their products, not because of any business relationship.