Review: Drobo and DroboShare

Drobo phone home
Most of you have probably heard of Drobo, the data storage robot/system from Data Robotics. We’ve done a review of the original Drobo here on CrunchGear, but recently Drobo was updated with a little brother named DroboShare, which painlessly converts Drobo into a Network Attached Storage device. I’ve had one hanging out with me for several weeks now, and I’ve formed an opinion: It’s sweet.

Big HDDaddy
Let’s have a brief overview of the Drobo just in case you haven’t read up on it. Essentially, it’s a completely self-contained system that takes whatever hard drives you give it (up to 4) and makes the data pretty much indestructible. If you have two drives in it, it will mirror the data one to the other, and if you have three or more it will stripe the data across them with parity. It’s aware of the organization of the data and when things change, it reshuffles the blocks to make sure they’re both safe and accessible. The downside, of course, is that you lose actual space to put things in; two 500 gig drives, for instance, will result in a total of 500 gigs of useable space. Drives are so cheap these days that that’s hardly an issue, but no one likes their gigabytes per dollar to be messed with too much.

After I tore out the 160GB
I installed a 160GB and two 500GB HDDs, which predictably gave me about 600GB of space to work with once it had formatted, which took a few minutes. I copied over my RAW photo backups, mp3s, torrents, collection of smaller internet videos (Leeroy Jenkins and such), and all my old DV footage of friends and family and dogs. Now all this, about 400GB, took quite a while to transfer over. Since the Drobo is limited by the speed of its USB2.0 connection, this intial stage can be rather long, but hopefully you’ll only have to do it once. After that, it was slow at first when going into folders I hadn’t opened yet, but that was only the first time in, so it was probably just indexing. Loading a gallery of my RAW images was not fast, but not slow enough to be a problem.

red alertIf there is any trouble, the Drobo Dashboard software will inform you. I normally don’t like extra stuff hanging about in my taskbar, but it was nice to have a straightforward measure of space available in case I need to check in one second whethere there’s enough room available to transfer my footage or download a torrent. It speaks in the first person (“I cannot protect your data…”) which is a little fanciful, but whatever. It’s not kidding when it says you can rip out any hard drive at any time, or however many it says it’s protected against. I opened it up and unceremoniously ejected one and it detected it and took countermeasures without missing a beat. It’ll take a little while to reconfigure itself but your data should be all right.

Little Sharester
The speed limitation is something that is shared with its new accessory, the DroboShare. After trying out the Drobo for a while in its original form, I went over to set it up at my parents’ house as a little media server (and they like it when I stop by.) Setup is a breeze; the Drobo and DroboShare fit together like puzzle pieces, and then a 3-inch USB cable connects them. Thoughtfully, instead of having DroboShare plug in separately, a Y-jack for the power cord is included. Anything that reduces cord clutter gets a thumbs-up from me. So I turned it on, plugged the ethernet cable into the back of our wired/wireless router, and went to see if it worked.

The increased need to wire our homes is contributing to the need for network-enabled storage. People don’t want a bunch of hardware cluttering up their desk, and they want to access their stuff from anywhere in the house. The problem with most network attached storage systems is that they’re not consumer oriented. Apple’s Time Capsule is the closest thing on the market I can think of that’s a true plug-and-play networked storage device apart from DroboShare. It, however, is even more in the background; Drobo and DroboShare are something people have to interact with, and as such should be as simple as possible. On my PC it was easy as pie to make it show, and on OSX the default settings were exactly what were needed when it asked to configure it. After that, it was just there.

Drive Lust
Not that you’d want to hide the Drobo and DroboShare away in your basement; it’s a very good-looking device to begin with and the new accessory is just as shiny. It’s a bit big, but it’s mostly quiet and the little lights saying things are as they should be are very reassuring when it’s your data on the line.

First of all, it was really a 21st-century moment that I had when I realized I was sitting there with a laptop on my lap, with access to hundreds of gigs of my own media, literally flying through the air at me. However, at this point I was bothered by the same thing that bothered me above: bandwidth. Would this router provide the fatness of pipe necessary to do what I needed? Turns out: pretty much, yeah. When wired in, it’s golden. When using the wireless, it depends a lot. I played a 720p movie file while wired in and it worked fine, but when I switched to wireless it stuttered and skipped, and had trouble seeking. I could see by my bandwidth monitor that I was maxing out my router’s wireless transmission speed – around 450-500KB/s. Your mileage may vary, but remember that you will be limited by your bandwidth, and with the size of files increasing constantly, that may actually be more of a problem than you think if you’re planning on having this be your main backup.

The nearly $1000 question
The price will always be a sticking point, of course. For the price of a Drobo, a DroboShare, and enough hard drives to make them worth having, you could buy twice as much space for your PC if you feel like cracking open the case. However, then you don’t have the feeling of security that comes with the little green LEDs, that seem to say “It’s okay. Whatever else is wrong with your life, your data is safe.” Furthermore, if you’re in any kind of media sharing situation and have a little scratch to spare, a Drobo set up with DroboShare is absolutely a worthwhile buy.

CrunchGear’s Recommendation
So who is this for? Well, as Drobo’s focus is security and usability and not speed, who this is not a good match for is people who are often transferring extremely large chunks of data, such as video professionals; my friend shoots on a RED and the USB interface of the Drobo takes it out of consideration. However:People with a fair amount of data, who have a little money to spend are great candidates for a Drobo. A Drobo setup is easy and powerful enough to be an excellent gift for someone like my parents (if they didn’t already have one) or non-tech-savvy person who may be downloading a lot of HDTV episodes from iTunes or the like. Installing new drives is so easy they may go bargain hunting for OEM hardware – how often do you hear of a non-nerd doing that? It may even function as a gateway device. People with laptops as their main machines who want to centralize their storage instead of spreading it out over several externals are the perfect users for this thing. Finally, I can see this setup working perfectly for a small business that needs to share common files between employees and needs to have each user’s machine backed up automatically to prevent data loss.