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The other week (week when I stared this post, now its a month!) I attended Tech Field Day #5 in San Jose, CA.  During this event, Drobo presented their technology to us – what it is – how it works – and where it is aimed.  I have to admit that I have been looking at a Drobo for a few years now and never pulled the trigger – until now.  Let me preface that by saying I did purchase a Netgear ReadyNAS NV+ a few years ago instead of a Drobo – and I do still have the Netgear – but am glad that I have added the Drobo to my home storage solution.  I purchased this unit from Drobo directly, using my own funds, and did use a publicly available discount code of BESTDEALEVER
What is a Drobo, in case you are wondering – well – let me let Cali Lewis explain and demonstrate:
Ok, so now that I have shown the obligatory video that everyone has probably already seen, I can continue.  There are a few differences in the unit that I purchased, Drobo FS, and the one in the video.  The two big differences are that the Drobo FS holds 5 drives and also has a built-in Gigabit Ethernet port.  No USB or other connectivity required, just plug it into the network and go!
Why did I chose to buy a Drobo when I already have a ReadyNAS from Netgear?  It comes down to the simplicity of the Drobo and how it works.  The Drobo is very simple, there are no drive carriers, the lights are very easy to understand (green, red, yellow), the web interface is simple and direct, and you do not have to be a Computer person to really use it.  I felt that this last piece of information is key – if ever I lost a drive when I was traveling  it would be easy to walk any member of my family through the process of replacing a the bad drive.
While looking at the Drobo you can quickly gauge the health of the unit. In the picture below you can see that all the drives are healthy (Green lights on the right) and the utilization is about 30% or so (Blue lights across the bottom).  What is really nice about this is that you do not need to look at the control panel software to see what is going on with the system.  You can just look at the unit and know that you have space and all the drives are good.  Heck, even a cell phone photo like the one below lets you know the health of the unit just by looking!

So, what do you do if a light is not green, or even worse, flashing?  That is easy, just pop off the magnetic front cover and look at the inside of it.  This little chart is part of the charm of this unit – and one of the reasons that I think it is so easy to use.  If you are wondering about any light, you can just look at this chart.  It is very easy to read, easy for someone non-technical to understand, and best of all, tells the person reading it what is going on.    So if a light is RED because of a drive failure or yellow because you are running out of space, it is easy to identify and replace.

If you look at the unit with the cover off, below is what you will see. As you can tell, there are no carriers for the drives – they just insert and lock in.  Again, that is part of the beauty in the simplicity of this design.  In order to do anything on my current NAS, I need to:
1) remove the carrier with the drive
2) unscrew the drive from the carrier and hope I do not drop a screw
3) install the new drive in the carrier and re-secure it with screws
and then finally
4) re-insert the drive into the unit.
With the Drobo, just pop out the old drive and insert the new drive into the unit.  As I said, this simple approach makes me more comfortable knowing I can rely on others to replace drives.

So lets talk  about the Drobo Dashboard (management console)  before I go onto the installation of the unit.  I am doing this because many of my next series of screen shots are all from that application so I am hoping that the information on the screen will even more sense. When you load the Drobo Dashboard you are presented with a simple pie chart that shows you the current used and free space.  It also shows you any drive mappings that you may have or are available under the Mount section.  If you want to mount a drive (assign it a drive letter), all you have to do is click the check box and the drive will be mounted.  As you can see below, the Public share has been mounted as drive letter W:

If you click on the arrow next to How is my storage being used?, you will see greater details on your storage.  Here you can see all the detail about the Drobo with regards what drives are installed, to total storage, protection, and whatever overhead is being used.  Here you can see that I have 5 1.5TB drives installed for a total storage space of 6.82 TB, 5.39TB is available for data, 1.43 TB is used for protection ( parity ), and there is about 10G of overhead on the system.  If I had odd size drives installed, you would see some Reserved for Expansion space there – that is space that is available for future use, but only after you add more drives.

If you go to the following page on Drobo’s website – Click Here – they have a great explanation of how the system is expandable.  The below picture is taken from that page and, as you can see, it uses as much space as it can and still keep the data redundant.  What is not usable in a redundant fashion, is reserved until you add more space.  If you where to add another 2 TB drive to the system, the space in Blue would then be free to use for storage as it can create the necessary redundancy via the new drive.

So, lets cover the setup of the unit, adding drives, and the rest of the management console.  When I first received the Drobo unit I had a few drives lying around, so I figured I might as well throw them in! Below is a screen shot of the drives (this is also the Advanced Controls section of the Drobo Dashboard) and you can see that I installed two 1.5TB drives, a 500GB drive, and a 250GB drive – within a few minutes all the drives where online and ready to go!  I had about 2TB of available protected storage, just like that.

Once I had the unit up and running, I decided to order 3 more of the Seagate 1.5 TB drives from NewEgg. Figured I might as well fill up the unit and max out the drives (not the capacity as this unit supports up to a 3TB drive), so I quickly added another 1.5 TB drive to the unit, and within a few minutes I had more space!

Now is where the beauty of this unit begins – I removed the 250GB drive and installed another 1.5 TB drive in its place.  No data was lost in this action, the unit did not care as it is based on of RAID and can support the loss of a drive.  But with RAID, you usually cannot take advantage of new space if the new drive is bigger – but with Drobo you can!  So, instead of having 3.34TB of space, I suddenly had 4.48 TB of space!

What is neat about the Drobo Dashboard, it actually starts to flash to alert you to the status.  My data was deemed At Risk due to the drive that I removed (nature of RAID), but what is also nice is that there is a Progress indicator telling you how long until the Drobo data storage is rebuilt.  This is very handy to know as if you choose to expand your data store with larger drives, you know about how long it will take.

Even the main dashboard shows me something is wrong, so no matter what screen you are in you can instantly see the health of the unit.  In the How is my storage being used, it even tells you that Data Protection is in progress.  You know what is going on, no matter what screen you are in.

So after that drive was rebuilt with storage as the RAID was finished expanding, I decided to remote the last 500 GB drive and replace it with another 1.5 TB drive.  It followed all the same processes as when I replaced the 250 GB drive, nice and simple.  So, as you can see below, I now have 5.39TB of usable, protected storage in the unit.

And when you look back at the Drobo Dashboard, you can see how the storage space is being used easily by looking at the pie chart.
So as you can see, adding and expanding capacity is as easy as adding and removing drives.  Just need to remember to replace your smallest drive first, that is the way that you can ensure you will maximize your storage capacity.   One other nice thing about the Drobo FS with 5-drives, you can also create a “hot spare” drive using the Dual Disk Redundancy option.  This will allow you to have one drive that is not used, but doubles the parity in case two drives fail. This is a GREAT option if your data is super critical and vital.  The reason that I am not doing this is because I actually bought a spare 1.5 TB drive, they are the same drives I have in my other NAS solution.  Easier for me to keep a spare on the shelf then to have a spare drive in each unit.

So, with all this positive things – are there any negatives?  Yes, I see one – the power supply.  With the Drobo it is an external power pack, whereas with my other NAS it is integrated to the unit.  Now this is not a huge deal, but I prefer to keep my cords to a minimum where possible.  To be honest though, that is my only issue with the whole unit – everything else is perfect.

So – you might wonder why do I still have the NetGear running, that is simple – it is a good box as well.  I used to use the Netgear for everything – Music, Files, Pictures, and Video media – but have since decided to make that a Media only box.  I now keep mostly my TiVo and iTunes backups there.  The NetGear box is great as it integrates into my TiVo because the Netgear supports DLNA .  This allows me to share any movies, tv shows, recorded programs, etc with my TiVo in a nice, simple fashion.
Drobo was a sponsor for Tech Field Day #5, and as such they were responsible for paying a portion of my travel expenses and hotel accommodations.   At no time did they ask for nor were they promised any kind of consideration in this review.  The analysis and opinions here are mine and mine alone.  They are given freely and without reservation.