Drobo Is Storage For Non-Technical People

It was late 2007, after seeing a Drobo in action at a trade show, that I bought one. It could handle up to four 3.5-inch hard drives of any capacity and automatically backed up redundant data without the user having to configure complex RAID arrays. That was revolutionary at the time, which made it my kind of product.

From day one, that Drobo worked flawlessly for me. If a drive went bad or I wanted to increase capacity, I would just eject one or more old drives, insert new ones and the data migration was automatic. It was as easy as redundant storage gets. But more importantly, the drive never failed me. Over the years, through several Macs, it has become the most rock solid part of my entire computing system.

My first Drobo was a USB 2.0 model. After a couple of years, the newer USB 3.0 model was on sale and I bought one. I just removed my old drives and plugged them into the new unit. Bingo, as before, everything worked flawlessly. The speed difference was impressive. I used it for my still photos and short videos. It simply showed up as one external drive on my Mac screen.

Having used the product for more than 10 years, the only problem I’ve had are blown power supplies. Apparently this problem is so common, spare power supplies are available at very low cost on eBay. I even keep a spare around. To be fair, these problems tend to happen after bad electrical storms or blown circuit breakers. The reliability of the product has been so good, I can’t blame the company for an occasional burnt out power supply.

A company representative recently asked if I’d like to try out a third generation Drobo 5D3 ($680.26). I jumped at the chance, because this new model is the descendant of the two models I have owned previously. The new model still has my most desired feature, which is called BeyondRAID. Not wanting to deal with any technology configuration, this is valuable to me. That said, I must admit a lot has changed with the latest model.

Drobo 5D3 flash slot. Click to enlarge.

Drobo 5D3 flash slot. Click to enlarge.

The 5D3 is a bit taller because the case increases the drive capacity to five. It now works with 3.5-inch SATA II/III hard disk drives or solid state drives. It also has a built-in Accelerator Bay with an mSATA card holder on the bottom of the unit.

With the company's Accelerator Cache technology, a copy of the most frequently accessed data is stored for access at incredibly fast speeds. This cache is designed to dramatically speed up loading large photo or video libraries and other I/O intensive operations. Depending on how the 5D3 is configured, the cache may or may not be enabled.

The platform offers multiple I/O options, making connectivity easy. Click to enlarge.

The platform offers multiple I/O options, making connectivity easy. Click to enlarge.

The 5D3 has both Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.0, Type-C connectivity, which makes the device blazingly fast. There are a pair of Thunderbolt 3 ports for daisy chaining. Up to six Thunderbolt devices and/or a non-Thunderbolt monitor can be connected at the end of the chain. The 5D3 supports one 5K monitor display or two 4K monitors.

With multiple 5D3 arrays in a chain, users can have up to 300TB of usable capacity and achieve maximum throughput by enabling the bi-directional 40 Gb/s performance of Thunderbolt 3.

Also added to 5D3 is protection against potential data loss during a power outage. Every Drobo now includes battery backup technology to protect data in the memory or cache. If the power fails, the drive moves any in-flight data to onboard flash so it will be protected and moves the data back to the disk drives once power is restored. This ensures important data is protected. The battery recharges itself and is designed to last for the life of the device.

When I began using my first Drobo, its primary use was for reliable, redundant backup. However, the 5D3 is a major leap ahead in technology. It’s fast enough to edit, store and view videos in a 4K/5K workflow, as well as being a reliable backup device. This is a huge advance.

Today, the company offers a series of external storage solutions in different configurations. The DAS, SAN and NAS appliances can house up to four, five, eight or twelve 3.5-inch or 2.5-inch Serial ATA or Serial Attached SCSI hard disk drives. They can connect with a computer or network via USB 2.0, USB 3.0, FireWire 800, eSATA, Gigabit Ethernet or Thunderbolt.

Drives in tower. Click to enlarge.

Drives in tower. Click to enlarge.

But, at their heart, Drobos are designed to allow installation and removal of hard disk drives without requiring manual data migration and also for increasing the storage capacity of the unit without downtime. It is that one compelling feature — BeyondRAID — and more than ten years of amazing reliability that has kept me using these products.

If the user is running low on storage space, the lights on the front provide guidance. It’s as simple as adding a drive in an empty bay or removing a smaller drive and replacing it with a larger one. There is no need to go through the time consuming process of destroying RAID sets and recreating them with larger drives and then finally restoring them from the backup.

Over the years, I have removed the internal hard drives from obsolete outboard drive cases and inserted the drive into the Drobo.They just work — even if it’s a hodgepodge of brands and drive sizes. They do not need to be matched in terms of capacity, speed or manufacturer, it is like a huge pool of storage. The file system redundancy is managed by a virtualization layer which lays data out in a proprietary format.

Ten years ago, I recommended the product to my video and photo editing friends as a small, reliable backup systems that just worked. Today, I would advise users to consider it for about any workflow with any system. The desktop storage has evolved far enough to work in virtually any situation, with the 5D3 model being for basic users.

The company has competitors from a range of vendors, and no doubt many of them are excellent products. However, my personal ten-year odyssey with Drobo products have made me trust them. I still back-up to the cloud and other devices, because my data is very important to my working life. But these drives have remained my most trusted storage systems for many years.

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