Full Disclosure – Drobo provided an evaluation unit with drives for this review.
Why would I even look at a Drobo?
I’ve always wanted to try a Drobo. The first Drobo was released in 2004 and was similar to the model I am reviewing. In the last 6 years, Drobo has expanded their line of devices to include models with faster transfer speeds, more drive bays and different ways to connect to your network. For the purposes of this review, I have a 2nd Generation Drobo (currently retail is between $299 and $399) and am using the USB 2.0 connection to my Windows Home Server. You can find more info on Drobo and their other products at http://drobo.com/.
Over the last 10 years, I’ve been looking for a system that would do PC and data back up for my home network. With more and more digital content being stored locally (like music) and multiple family PCs now in the house, it’s something I cannot live without! In 2007, along came the Windows Home Server (WHS) v1. Considering the cost of a Drobo unit at the time, and the affordability of a WHS (since I could use old PC equipment to complete), I downloaded the beta product and began the journey of building my first Home Server.
Fast forward to December 2010. I have now have 2 WHS, am testing the latest WHS version, code named “Vail” and was looking forward to an early 2011 launch of long promised OS. Microsoft changed all that.
As most of us know now, that at the end of November, Microsoft announced that it would remove Drive Extender (DE) from the WHS product. This as already been covered completely here at the Home Server Show site. So what do you do in a WHS world without DE? My thoughts took me back to 2006 and the Drobo.
The Drobo’s unique RAID like solution (which they call BeyondRAID) takes the complexity out of combining multiple hard drives together for one mass volume. So if I have 3TB of movie files but I only have 1TB hard drives available, rather than spread those files out across multiple drives (adding complexity), I can combine the drives together virtually to make them look like a single drive (lowering complexity) and making it easier to administrate. This in a nut shell, was the beauty of DE, the feature in WHS that is being removed in future versions.
This kind of functionality can also be done with many forms of RAID but these solutions are often difficult to implement for the average user. I am looking for something easy.
The Drobo also allows me to add hard drive space on the fly by hot swapping drives out of the unit and replacing them with larger (or smaller) ones when my needs change. This makes physical drive management very simple for the end user and lowers the frustration level when it comes to adding space.
Because I blog and podcast for the WHS community, most of this review will focus on the aspects of replacing current DE functionality with a Drobo Solution and not replacing the entire functionality of a WHS. The main question will be, “What if I use Drobo to manage my drives instead of the WHS?”
A complete list of features and benefits for the Drobo can be found at http://drobo.com/
The Set Up
My current WHS for this review is a HP Pavilion a6244n PC. It has an Intel Core 2 Duo E4500 @ 2.20GHz and 3GB of RAM running WHS Service Pack 2, Power Pack 3 and all the latest updates. It’s a fresh install and minimal Add-ins. I currently have a 500GB SATA drive as the System drive and two External drives installed (400GB and 500GB each). I use the 500GB as the main storage drive and the 400GB as the server backup. With the announcement of DE being removed from the next version, I am currently transitioning my data from an older box to this one.
The Drobo and Management Software Install
In the box comes:
1. The Drobo (wrapped in a black cover that could be used later as a dust cover)
2. Power Cords, USB and Firewire 800 Cables
3. A resource CD and Documentation (the book is actually handy!)
Set up and configuration is simple. Pull all the contents out of the box, plug in the Drobo and it comes to life. I connected the unit to my Home Server via USB 2.0 (I don’t have a Firewire 800 port on my WHS) and installed the software from the provided CD
It’s a basic install like anything else. It does install Microsoft’s iSCSI Initiator, an application used to connect a host computer that is running Windows® 7 or Windows Server® 2008 R2 to an external iSCSI-based storage array through an Ethernet network adapter. It’s not used on this Drobo model, but I thought you might like to know.
Once the Dashboard install is complete, it will launch. No drives had been added to the device and so it gave a “No Hard Drives Detected” warning. That is okay since it means the PC has found the Drobo.
The system then checks for updates. It had none for me.
It had both the latest version of the Dashboard Software (1.7.3) and verified I had the latest firmware version (1.3.7).
Back to the WHS, In the folders tab, I have about 74 GB of data, mostly music, documents and photos. The system takes about 21GB of space.
Below is a detailed shot of the folders. Drive duplication is turned off.
For this review, I have 4 – 80GB Hard drives. 2 are Samsung, 1 Western Digital and 1 Seagate. While they are all the same size, it is not a requirement with a Drobo. It is able to handle varying sizes as well as manufactures. We will add larger drives to the pool in later reviews.
The front cover is attached magnetically and comes off easy, but it would never just fall off.
On the back side of the cover there is a legend for the lights. There are just 5 different status options.
|Orange||Add a drive here soon. It’s also smart enough to not only tell you when it needs more space, but here to add it!|
|Flashing Green and Orange||Add a drive here soon. It’s also smart enough to not only tell you when it needs more space, but here to add it! – Don’t remove drive yet|
|Red||Add a drive here|
|Flashing Red||Drive Failure, replace|
In the picture to the above, you can see there are four slots for drives and three are taken. A 3.5 SATA drive just slides into each one of the slots without the need for tools. The drives didn’t slide in a as easily as I first imagined, but the process is not difficult and I think anyone could do it.
I inserted the first 80GB Drive into the very top slot.
Format: Outline the options. I chose Server 2003 (which it auto detected)
Selected the Volume Size at 2 TB. More on this later.
Selected the Default Drive Letter. In this case, F.
It proceeded to format the drive. The lights flashed Green and Orange, prompting you to not remove the drive during this process.
After about 3 minutes, the format was complete
A shot of the Data tab in the Advanced Controls after the first drive was added.
A shot of the Dashboard after the first drive was added.
Now it was time to load up the box! Added the second drive and the lights flashed green/yellow during the format. The drive could be used, but the Drobo couldn’t protect the data against a hard drive failure at this point. Had about 60GB of useable space for now.
Since I was going to add all four drives to the pool, I didn’t wait for the drive to finish formatting before I added the third drive. At this point, about 140GB became available to use of the 240GB total. It still continued to format the drives.
[Click on the pictures for larger image]
Finally, all four drives are in. About 220GB of the 320GB are now ready to use. One of the drives is not sounding well. I think it’s #3. Hope it dies so I can see what happens!
The drives finished formatting in about 10 minutes.
After the drive is added, WHS sees the drive as a full 2TB Volume, even though we know there is only 220GB available. Now going to remove the 500GB external drive from the pool to force data on to the Drobo. On the front of the unit there is a USB activity light that tells me that data is indeed moving from the external drive on to the Drobo.
As the Drobo is filled, there are blue lights along the bottom that indicate how full the Drobo has become. It’s just a visual aid without having to open the console. Here is a screen shot of the drive filling.
In order to fill the drive, I just started copying large file folders over and over, 15 GB at a time. It didn’t take too long and I had reached the max amount I could add.
On the unit itself, (represented by the Dashboard below) the green light next to the top drive turned orange, which means the Drobo is telling me I need to add a bigger drive to the pool. The file I was trying to copy just hung in process. If I had replaced the drive, I’m sure it would have completed, but I will cover that process in part 2 of this review.
For now, I just stopped the transfer process and deleted files until the Drobo was satisfied it had enough space back to be happy with the drives it had. It was a good test to see what would happen if the Drobo filled up. In the screen shot below, you can see that it appears that the Drobo still has plenty of space left, even though we know from the Drobo that it is full. This could be confusing for your average user.
With the files reduced, the dashboard tells me the Drobo is all green.
Some Simple and Early Speed Tests
I will do some more advanced testing in later posts, but here is some early and not too scientific data on transfer speeds with simple windows file transfer.
The system drive is 3.5 7200 RPM SATA 500GB 3.0 G/s internal Hard Drive
The External Drive is an HP 400GB USB 2.0 Hard Drive
Moving 4.7GB Folder Containing WHS Aurora
Drive to Drive
|System Drive||2 – 3 minutes|
|External USB 2.0 Drive||6 – 8 Minutes|
|Drobo||10 – 12 Minutes|
|System to External USB||2 - 3 Minutes|
|System to Drobo||3 - 4 Minutes|
|External USB to Drobo||3 - 4 Minutes|
|External USB to System||3 – 4 Minutes|
|Drobo to System||8 – 10 Minutes|
|Drobo to External USB||8 – 10 Minutes|
Copied a 700MB folder of SharePoint 2010 from the DVD Drive
- Transferring to the Drobo it took just under 3 minutes.
- Transferring to the System drive took just under a minute.
|To System Drive||< 1 Minute|
|To External USB||2 – 3 Minutes|
|To Drobo||2 – 3 minutes|
So what have I learned in Part 1?
- Installing both the unit and the software is extremely easy.
- While I used all 80GB drives, you can use any SATA drives of any capacity. Mix and Match with what you have and use what you own. You don’t have to match drives (will show this functionality in the next post).
- Easier to configure than standard RAID since it uses a Windows application for its Dashboard.
- Adding drives is very simple both physically adding them to the unit and installing them to the pool.
- It depends on the drives you install, but the unit itself is very quiet.
- The enclose is well built and very sturdy. It looks at least as good or maybe even better than a Media Smart Server. (I look forward to your comments)
- It is a very efficient size. It would fit just about anywhere.
- Slower transfer speeds. The USB version is no speed demon. This may improve as I test fast models in the future. This is after all just USB 2.0
- It’s an extra expense to purchase the enclosure. (However, some RAID cards can cost as much as this unit!)
- You don’t necessarily get all the space that you see in the WHS console when using NTFS for Server 2003 because it is displaying the Volume info and not the actual space. (will try it with other options in next post)
- There were times when I was transferring data to the Drobo and the file transfer time would go from 2 minutes to 20 minutes and back to 2 minutes. I know that happens, but it happened more when the Drobo was in the mix
- The Dashboard controls didn’t always respond quickly with the unit close to capacity.
One of my purposes here, is to determine if I can replace the current Driver Extender functionality within the WHS with a Drobo. After the first round of testing, I am still not sure. I will do more testing, more configuration and more thinking and report back. Stay tuned for additional posts on this. There is still more of this story to be told. Check back here for Part 2.