Hardware Review: Drobo FS by Data Robotics

Posted on by Larry

[ This article was first published in the September, 2010, issue of
Larry’s Monthly Final Cut Studio Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]


(To read my disclosure policy on product reviews, please click here.)

Drobo FS

This week has been an interesting combination of getting our production gear ready for Digital Video Expo and thinking about the business of our business for my next webinar: Growing Your Business.

As we do at DV Expo each year, we set-up an audio production studio to record and edit interviews, as well as produce a new show every night.

(To see our guest list, or listen to these live shows, click here.)

In the past, we’ve taken a server and plenty of RAID storage to track all our files. This year, we are doing something different. When the folks at Data Robotics expressed an interest in sponsoring our DV Expo coverage, I asked about borrowing a Drobo FS to use for the show.

I’ve been a fan of Drobo for a while. The security it provides by being a RAID, its expandability, and its flexibility make it a strong contender when considering adding storage to your system.

Here is a list of my past reviews of Drobo gear:

The reason I wanted to use the Drobo FS for the show is that this unit includes its own file server. In other words, I don’t need to bring any other computer gear to share files.

The Drobo FS arrived two days ago. I unboxed it, slid in some hard disks (which can be purchased either with the unit or separately), plugged it into AC power, and connected the Ethernet cable to my switch.

Done.

(I was reminded of the Jeff Goldblum ad for Macintosh a few years ago: step one is plug it in, step two is connect it to the network, and (giggle) there is no step three.)

Because I’ve already installed Drobo Dashboard on several of my computers during testing of other Drobo products, after a couple minutes warming up, the Drobo FS quietly appeared on my desktop, ready to work.

No configuration, no setup, it just worked.

DROBO BENEFITS

Drobo takes a different approach when compared to other RAIDs that I’ve tested.

First, you can mix and match hard disk sizes. Other RAIDs require all hard disks to be the same size.

Second, you can add more hard disks later. While the Drobo FS can hold up to five drives, the minimum you need is three. (Drobo says you can start with two, but you won’t get the speed you need until you have at least three.)

Third, you can increase the size of your storage at any time, by replacing a smaller hard disk with a larger one. Your data will be automatically rebuilt onto the new drive, even while you are using it. In this case, I would replace the 320 GB drive with a 1 or 2 TB one.

Fourth, the Drobo Dashboard, which is how to configure and adjust any Drobo, does not assume you have an IT degree. It is graphical, easy to use, and gets out of your way when you don’t need it.

IF YOU ARE NEW TO DROBO

If this is your first Drobo, you will need to install the Drobo Dashboard in your Applications folder before you will see the Drobo FS. The software is free — www.drobo.com/support/updates.php — and takes about five minutes start to finish.

Drobo FS was designed to work with its default settings, so once you have the Dashboard installed, you don’t need to do anything else to get the unit to appear on your desktop.

You can, however, start Drobo Dashboard at any time to admire the pretty graphics.

Drobo FS supports Windows, Mac, and Linux systems. You can also use it to create backups for every system on your network or have it act as a Time Machine backup.

WHAT IS THE DROBO FS GOOD FOR?

The best use of the Drobo FS is for shared storage in a NON-production environment. In other words, this is a perfect device for business documents.

When I first started it, I decided to see how fast it was. So, I copied 500 GB of files up to the unit. (I had an ulterior motive… I had a 2-drive RAID 0 unit with a failing power supply and I needed to be sure I had a backup.)

Data transfer speeds were 27-31 MB/second. Plenty fast enough for most business files (which are only a few MB, if that) but too slow for massive video files. Essentially, it transferred data about the speed of a FireWire 400 drive.

Then, I decided to transfer data to it simultaneously from two different computers – a MacPro and an iMac.

In this screen shot you see the transfer speed from two different computers simultaneously writing to the Drobo FS. And I discovered two very interesting things:

  1. The data transfer rate of 27-31 MB/second is the maximum. As more computers send data the rate gets divided between the devices.
  2. As large files are transferred, the transfer rate pulses – slowly changing from full speed to near zero then back up to full speed.

In this screen shot, you can clearly see the decrease in data rate even thought the file transfer was not complete.

So, I sent an email to Mark Fuccio, Senior Director of Products and Markets, at Data Robotics, asking what was going on. He replied:

“This is a fascinating illustration of differences in protocols. DroboPro and Drobo FS use the same microprocessor. You see the performance differences in your testing. iSCSI [used by the DroboPro] is a block level protocol, slinging bytes and bytes of data between the Mac and drives. It’s very fit and fast. Drobo FS [uses] a file sharing protocol. There is a lot of computation overhead needed [by the Drobo FS] to both keep track of the files and then manage the communication to the host.”

I then asked Mark what he views as the key market for the Drobo FS. He replied:

“There is no way Drobo FS is fit for editing (unless you have a machine to go back in time and do SD video). Its role is for sharing files for office use, OR for modelers doing motion graphics work. General file backup, too. It might be useful storing a “demo reel” of finished work. I suspect most editors will find its performance too slow to want to backup video assets from their projects.”

I agree with Mark’s assessment. The performance of the Drobo FS is not adequate for editing. BUT…

Look at how many files your business creates that are NOT related to production: sales, marketing, accounting, legal. etc. The current way to solve this is to buy a server, then buy additional storage, perhaps even an external RAID.

I currently use three MacMini’s as servers in our office which are shared among 11 systems. I spent about $1,500 per server, plus more money for storage, yet all I’m using two of the servers for is file sharing.

You can buy an empty Drobo FS for $664 (US list), or fully populated with 10 TB of RAID storage for $1,614 (US list).

Essentially, you are buying the storage and getting the server for free.

So, when you are looking to expand storage and accessibility in your office, consider using the Drobo FS. Drobo’s website says “It’s all about sharing.” Perhaps. But for me, the Drobo FS reminds me of my Mac: It Just Works.


Oh, so why are we using the Drobo FS for DV Expo? Because we are only working with audio files. Most of our interviews involve only two people, with a maximum of three. Two simultaneous audio streams at 16-bit, 44.1 kHz (which is the rate we record at) is less than three megabytes per second. Even with three editors working at once, the Drobo FS is plenty fast enough – plus, I get to leave my server at home.

 


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