Drobo 2.0, Features YES, Performance NO

As we progress through 2009, we have finally seen the release of a 3.5″ desktop SATA 2TB hard disk drive.  Unlike a few years ago – the average home PC now has upwards of 750GB to 1TB of disk space.  Advanced configurations are starting to even include RAID setups in a standard home PC that push beyond 2TB of raw disk space.


With these increasingly large drives and increasingly large home systems comes an increasingly large requirement for reliable backup storage.   To complicate matters further, many home networks like my own have multiple client PCs, sophisticated server machines, virtual machines, domain controllers, network appliances and an increasingly complex selection of devices that need reliable backup space.  


Then… disaster strikes.  On Monday of this week, my Windows 2003R2 server machine decided to crap out on me while I was installing a backup battery on my Intel SRCS28X SATA RAID card.  Fortunately for me, I have always had a couple of 1TB Western Digital external drives hooked to my machine with scheduled Robocopy jobs that sync data off of the RAID array to the externals as a crude form of backup.


In this instance, I was able to restore all of my data from these drives without incident.  I have discovered, however, that I am quickly running out of space for backups.  My home network contains about a terabyte of RAW data on the server and a total capacity of about 6.5TB of drive space across all of the machines in the house.  Granted I don’t have the typical home setup, I am fortunate in that I have designed the system such that my Domain Controller uses group policy to map all of the traditional “documents folders” on each of the machines to a network drive.  This means that all of my data is in a central location – on the server, easy to backup and restore but vulnerable to an outage like the one I experienced this week when the server dies.


Enter the Drobo.  For those of you who have not seen one yet – they’re a cool little box with four hot-swap SATA drive bays and a pretty intelligent stack of electronics (click here for a look).  The Drobo is basically a RAID unit – but unlike traditional RAID units – it doesn’t prompt you with 10 billion different configuration options, hassle you with the configuration complexities of RAID, nor even require you to insert four drives of the same brand, model, or size.  In essence – the folks at Data Robotics have given you a standalone redundant storage system that is intelligent enough to manage itself and simple enough for your mother to use.


The technology behind the drobo is amazing. It seems to waste a little bit more of the traditional drive capacity of say, RAID 5, but the amount of wasted space depends heavily upon how you have it “stocked” with drives.  If you have four 1 terabyte drives, for example, you end up with 2.7TB of disk space where the typical RAID-5 setup would yield 3TB.  The drive itself is very simple – a black box with front access to four quick-release drive bays (you dont even need to put drives in a tray – just slide the bare drives in), a light next to each bay for drive status, an array of blue LEDs on the bottom to show you how “full” the drive is at a glance, and then a power and activity LED.  On the back, you have a gaping hole that acts as the exit for the cooling fan, a power connector, and ports for USB and FireWire 800.


I’ve wanted one of these little guys since the day they were released.  On Thursday of this week, I happened to look on New Egg and they had a listing which showed a 4X1TB Drobo for $654.99.  Since the base price of a drobo is around $400, another $254 for 4 1TB drives seemed like a deal – so I ordered them, even with next day shipping.  I was determined that this would be a good backup system for the most important files in my network, and with room to expand and the ability to expand at will – I was looking forward to it’s arrival.


So it gets here this morning and I open it up.  What do you know, The box contained a bare Drobo unit and a RoboShare device (basically a little box that sits under the DROBO and turns your Formerly DAS device into a NAS device).  What’s this?  I say – no drives?  Could my faithful friend Newegg have mislead me on their website with the 4x1TB comment?  Yup.  Turns out that what I ordered was a Drobo/DroboShare bundle.  Funny thing is – the price of this “bundle” was around $60 more than if I had purchased them seperately – $110 more if you consider the current $50 mail in rebate promotion.


With awesome service, as usual, NewEgg agreed to RMA the device – and even offered me return shipping labels.  Me being the techno-geek that I am, however, I decided that I would drop a couple of drives in and benchmark the device to see how well it performs.  For some reason, in nearly all of the review’s I’ve read they comment on the simplicity, the coolness, and the uniqueness of this little “Data Robot” but they never include good performance comparisons.  I mean, after all – if there is ever an opportunity to “try before you buy” – this is it – regardless of whether I end up ordering another one or not I have to return this “bundle”.


The results are disappointing.  Don’t get me wrong – the device itself is awesome.  The ease of use is fantastic, the ability to continually “grow” your storage by replacing drives one at a time as you need more space is fantastic – something you can’t think of doing with normal RAID.  But when you think of using it in the type of configuration I am, you’re talking about moving gigabytes and gigabytes of files performing incremental backups on a daily basis – and if something cant move files quickly – it just isn’t efficient.


So to test this device – I decided I would do a USB 2.0 test *AND* a FireWire 800 test from my shiny new 17″ Macbook Pro under Windows Vista 64-bit.   I read about problems with Firewire on earlier versions of firmware – so I hooked the Drobo up via USB, installed two Western Digital WD2500KS 7200 RPM SATA-II drives, and installed the drobo software.   Upon installing the drobo “Dashboard”, which is a utility to show you current information about your little robotic friend, you are prompted to perform a firmware update.  At the time of this writing, that is version 1.3 – I performed the update, partitioned and formatted the drive – and got ready for testing.


Now – one of the weird things about the Drobo is because you can constantly upgrade the drive space by ejecting one drive and replacing it with another, larger drive – waiting for it to rebuild, and then repeating – you end up with a device that can “grow” from it’s initial capacity.  Windows would most certainly think this to be odd – so you “thin provision” the device to a certain size – anywhere between 1 and 16 terabytes.   The larger the provision, the longer Drobo takes to start up.  The lower the provisioned size, the more likely you are to end up with multiple logical drives as you expand past your initial provisioned size.  Drobo recommended a 2TB partition, so that’s what I went with.


It’s a little weird that although this drive only had around 238MB of free space (basically a mirror when you’ve got 2 drives) – it shows up in Windows as a 2TB drive.  You must use the Drobo Dashboard software or the lights on the front of the device to gauge actual capacity.  No big deal though, it’s a small price to pay for the unmatched flexibility this device has to offer.   Since i was already plugged in with USB – I decided to perform my USB tests first.  I decided I would perform two copy operations using RoboCopy, and spit the results to a log file to see the actual bandwidth specifications.


The first file was an ISO that I downloaded from TechNet – a 5.5GB ISO of Exchange Server.   I figured this would be great for seeing sustained transfer rate over a large file copy operation.  The second was going to be a transfer of a folder off of my machine that contained 389 Megabytes of data spread over 1,644 files and 96 folders – an accurate depiction of backing up something like a “Documents Folder”.  This would be good for testing the sustained transfer rate over many smaller files and folders.


The Results were suprising actually…..


Tests run on a 2.66Ghz Core2Duo MacBook Pro with a 7200RPM 320GB Western Digital Scorpio Black HDD, 4GB of RAM, running Windows Vista 64-bit

  • USB 2.0 – 5.5GB Large File Transfer – 25,228,221 Bytes/sec. – Roughly 25MB/sec or around 1443.570 Megabytes per minute.
  • USB 2.0 – 389MB Small File/Folder Transfer – 4,947,238 Bytes/sec – Roughly 4MB/sec or around 283.083 Megabytes per minute.


I then shut down the computer, Powered down the Drobo, and hooked it up via the FireWire 800 cable, plugged it into the PC – then rebooted everything.  I expected to see better performance, especially given the information on Drobo’s website – boy was I wrong!

  • FireWire 800 – 5.5GB Large File Transfer – 23,397,584 Bytes/sec – Roughly 23MB/sec or around 1338.820 Megabytes per minute.
  • FireWire 800 – 389MB Small File/Folder Transfer – 4,209,998 Bytes/sec – Roughly 4MB/sec or around 240.898 Megabytes per minute.


I also ran HDTune tests and received the following results

  • USB 2.0 – Read Benchmark Test
    • Minimum Transfer Rate – 18.7MB/sec
    • Maximum Transfer Rate – 23.4MB/sec
    • Average Transfer Rate – 19.6MB/sec
    • Access Time – 2.0ms
    • Burst Rate – 16.2MB/sec
  •  FireWire 800 – Read Benchmark Test
    • Minimum Transfer Rate – 13.3MB/sec
    • Maximum Transfer Rate – 17.3MB/sec
    • Average Transfer Rate – 14.4MB/sec
    • Access Time – 2.1ms
    • Burst Rate – 11.7MB/sec


I can only hope that something with Windows Vista 64-bit wreaks havoc with Firewire 800 speed.  I dont know of any other way to explain such a drop when going from USB 2.0 to FireWire 800.


My conclusion – The drobo is awesome….. IF.   If you like flexibility, if you like ease of use, if you like an attractive physical piece of hardware – then the drobo is your guy.  If you’re storing relatively infrequently accessed data or data that will be built up over time (pictures and home movies for example) – this device is perfect for you.  If you’re looking to backup gigabytes of data and run backup scripts on a daily basis that incrementally update the data already stored on the drive – look elsewhere.


That’s exactly what I did.  I ordered a Lacie 4Big 2TB unit.  Once she gets here (early next week) – I’ll perform similar tests and post the results.  The big difference?  Other than FireWire 800 and USB – the Lacie drive also supports eSATA.


When the folks at Data Robotics release a Drobo with an eSATA connector – I’ll definately own one of these great devices.  Until then – have fun putting YOUR home movies, pictures, and documents on one.

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