A Year With Drobo: My Review of the Drobo FS

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About a year ago, I picked up a Drobo FS. It was something I had been wanting to do for awhile to support my ever growing data needs. In particular, I had three problems I was aiming to solve:

  1. Data security. In addition to the obvious suspects of photos and home movies, I have a lot of old files and documents I've been hanging onto for  years now. Papers I wrote in high school and college, some of the first computer code I wrote, etc. How I've managed to preserve some of this over the years is a miracle in itself - a lot of it was recovered a few years back when I picked up a 3.5" floppy disk drive and started going through boxes of floppies in my attic. But now that I have it all in one central place, I'd like to secure it.

  2. Media library. My wife and I own a lot of DVDs, and they take up a lot of space. They're also not very portable. A while back I started the process of ripping all my DVDs into iTunes so that they could feed to any TV in the house with an AppleTV, essentially creating our own private video on demand system. This was rapidly outpacing the available space.

  3. Central backup location. I wanted a place where all the Macs in the house could backup to via Time Machine.

After doing a great deal of research, I decided on the Drobo FS. In addition to being able to do all of the above, it had some other nice features that I liked:

  • Thin provisioned, meaning you can hot-swap drives in and out while the device is running and not have downtime while it rebuilds the array.

  • Also thanks to thin provisioning, your drives (theoretically, I'll get to this in a bit) don't need to be the same size or from the same manufacturer.

  • Data protection that purports to examine the health of a drive and move data around to give it the best change of preservation.

Now, to be sure, you're trusting a black box. If Drobo fails, there is almost no cheap way to recover that data as they use non-standard, proprietary technology to accomplish all their voodoo magic. Nonetheless, in this case, it was a tradeoff I was willing to make.

So after a year of ownership, how does Drobo stand up in fulfilling these promises? Well, there's a lot of stories here but, overall, it does well with a few caveats I've learned along the way.

When I first ordered the Drobo, at the same time I placed an order for 3 identical Seagate 2TB drives. I got them installed and got the array up and operational, and got all my data from various places moved over to the Drobo. The first thing I noticed while copying data over to the Drobo was that it was slow. Very slow. Transfer speeds to the Drobo across my gigabit network were in the ~10 megabit range. Upping the frame size to jumbo (9000) improved that a little but it was still very slow. Not a deal-breaker, as you're rarely moving that much data around, but it was something I noticed.

Then, the real problems started.

The Drobo would just randomly vanish from Finder. No reason, just one moment it wouldn't be there and you couldn't even connect to it via IP address, although you could still ping it. I opened a support ticket with Data Robotics, who took me through a troubleshooting procedure that involved directly connecting the Drobo to my Mac via Ethernet. Of course it would work fine when we did that, so I figured it was a problem with my network. But even creating the shortest possible path between my iMac and the Drobo yielded the same results.

I opened another ticket, and we went through the same procedure again. This time, however, we let it sit longer. Sure enough, about 30 seconds after it booted and appeared in Finder, it disappeared from Finder and from their Dashboard tool. I was able to SSH to it and see that the filesystem was now mounted in read-only mode. But we were able to get some diagnostic log files off of it. The tech looked them over and said that the drives were failing. And sure enough, the next day, Drobo reported one of the drives had died and that it was moving data around to protect things.

Now, in my entire life, I've had 2 hard drive failures, with one occurring just a couple years ago. So I popped online and ordered another drive (this time, a Western Digital Enterprise 2TB drive). Popped it in the Drobo and it seemed happy, although still slow and occasionally vanishing from finder. Then, about a month later, I'm out working in the yard and boom, get an email on my iPhone about a second drive failure in the Drobo. So I order another Western Digital 2TB drive and put it in. The whole time, by the way, Drobo remains on and accessible. Pretty cool actually. And replacing a drive is pretty easy - you just pop the old one out and put the new one in, without even shutting down. Drobo then goes into a "protection" mode where it shuffles data around onto the new drive.

But, with 2 of the 3 Seagate drives I bought failing within 6 months, I decided it probably wasn't wise to continue to trust that last one since it was probably from the same batch. So I replaced that one as well. That was about seven months ago, which brings us to today.

Between the better drives and several firmware and software upgrades from Data Robotics in the interim, Drobo is now virtually rock solid and (knock on wood) I haven't had any further problems. It no longer randomly disappears from Finder or the Drobo Dashboard and, in a very Apple way, it just works. And I also want to say that, throughout the troubleshooting process, the Data Robotics guys were great to work with and wanted to see the problem solved.

So overall, after a year and some growing pains, I'm pretty happy with it and wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Drobo FS with the following caveats:

  1. Use quality drives. Don't buy the cheap drives and definitely avoid Seagate drives as the Drobo seems to hate those. When I upgraded to the WD drives, I bought the server-level Enterprise drives. Those have been rock solid. My guess is that Drobo is pretty hard on drives, with lots of reads, writes and seeks.

  2. Use the same size and manufacturer. Now, one of Drobo's big selling points is that you can use different size drives and all that. This is one of those cases where what you can do and what you should do are two different things. You can use any size and manufacturer, but I've had better success and performance when all my drives are from the same manufacturer and are the same size.

  3. Be sure your firmware and software are up to date.  Kinda goes without saying, but the firmware upgrades for the Drobo have really helped with it's stability.

  4. If you start having problems with your Drobo like I had above, get ready for a drive failure.

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