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  • Can a Drobo Replace WHS Drive Extender? Part 1


    Full Disclosure – Drobo provided an evaluation unit with drives for this review.

    Why would I even look at a Drobo?

    Drobo_Right_Angle_HiI’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.

    windows-home-server.jpgAs 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!)

    Drobo_Front_Low.jpg Drobo_Back_Low.jpg Drobo_Open_Low.jpg

    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.

    Microsoft iSCSI Initiator

    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.

    No Hard Drives Detected

    The system then checks for updates. It had none for me.

    System Updates

    It had both the latest version of the Dashboard Software (1.7.3) and verified I had the latest firmware version (1.3.7).

    Advanced Tools Tools Tab Advanced Tools Data Tab

    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.

    WHS Storage Pre Drobo

    Below is a detailed shot of the folders. Drive duplication is turned off.

    WHS Folders Pre Drobo


    Loading Drives

    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.

    Drobo_Open_HiThe WHS is able to install the Drobo, but the console won’t show available drive space until a drive is added.

    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.

    Green Healthy
    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.

    Drobo Format

    Format: Outline the options. I chose Server 2003 (which it auto detected)

    Dashboard Format Drive

    Selected the Volume Size at 2 TB. More on this later.

    Dashboard How Large Drives

    Selected the Default Drive Letter. In this case, F.

    Dashboard Drive Letter

    It proceeded to format the drive. The lights flashed Green and Orange, prompting you to not remove the drive during this process.

    Dashboard Format Action

    After about 3 minutes, the format was complete

    Dashboard Format Complete

    A shot of the Data tab in the Advanced Controls after the first drive was added.

    Advanced controls data after drive 1

    A shot of the Dashboard after the first drive was added.

    Storage Dashboard after Drive 1

    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]

    DataProtection Active after drive 2 added DataProtection Active after drive 3 added DataProtection Active after drive 4 added

    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!

    Advanced controls data after drive 4

    The drives finished formatting in about 10 minutes.

    WHS Storage Post Drobo

    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.

    WHS Storage Post Drobo removed drive

    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.

    DataProtection Active after drive removed

    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.

    Filled Drobo

    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.

    Full Drobo with Drive Orange

    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.

    Advanced Admin Console with the Drobo Full


    A full but happy drobo

    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

    Across Drives

    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

    1. Transferring to the Drobo it took just under 3 minutes.
    2. 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?


    1. Installing both the unit and the software is extremely easy.
    2. 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).
    3. Easier to configure than standard RAID since it uses a Windows application for its Dashboard.
    4. Adding drives is very simple both physically adding them to the unit and installing them to the pool.
    5. It depends on the drives you install, but the unit itself is very quiet.
    6. 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)
    7. It is a very efficient size. It would fit just about anywhere.


    1. 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
    2. It’s an extra expense to purchase the enclosure. (However, some RAID cards can cost as much as this unit!)
    3. 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)
    4. 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
    5. 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.

    Jim Collison is a blogger and podcaster for HomeServerShow.com and TheAverageGuy.tv.


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    I've been thinking about this too. I think it'll work, and your review seems to support that. I think the esata enabled Drobo S is the way to go but I hear that's a bit slow too, which is a shame though I wonder if it would matter in a server where the ethernet speed is going to be more of a limiting factor. The main area I can't seem to solve yet is power, how can this box be switched on and off with the server without losing data? I tried one of those sockets that detects when master socket is on/off and switches the slave sockets automatically using an Icy Dock 4 bay esata enclosure but I got a lot of data errors which I think were caused by the enclosure not getting power soon enough and losing power before it had finished writing. So that didn't work and I don't imagine the Drobo handling that any better. Any idea how to handle that, besides leaving everything running allmthe time?
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    Thanks for you comments Tim. I didn't even think about the power issue. I will at that to my notes of things to cover in future posts! It is slower, but drive protection comes at a cost. A future post will look at applications where speed matters, like video. Stay tuned! Open a thread in the forums and see if others might want to weigh in on what they do with external drives and power.
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    I'm in a situation similar to you. I just sold my 495 on EBay today and want to do a homebrew server again. However, I have an HP m7750n just sitting there, my old production desktop. It is whisper quiet, has a 400GB drive, 4GB of RAM and AMD x64 2.6GHz. I had thought of simply adding a drive enclosure, at least 4 Bay and PCIe card? Would this be at least equal to a new build and hopefully cheaper and be adequate for Vail if I decided to go that route? And yes heard that Drobo is slow compared to a Synology system.
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    Mike - I was afraid that when I posted this review, folks would jump to some early conclusions that may not be true just yet. Remember, I tested the slowest connect (USB 2)on the classic and least expensive box. Please don't take this ONE post and draw complete conclusions. I believe there is more to this story and I have several months of reviews planned, including faster models. So hang with me, you might find something you weren't expecting. I'm really trying to go into this positive until proven otherwise. Hang with me for a few more posts.
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    To be honest, this review proved nothing when it came to actual speed. I compared it only to an internal SATA drive (which of course would be lighting fast) and one external hard drive (USB 2) using Windows file transfer and very little actual metrics. Like I said with Mike, hang with me for a few more reviews before we pass judgment. A few weeks ago everyone was saying that the Home Server was dead, and that is far from the truth. There will be other options. The Drobo is very easy to use and to set up. It may not be the right unit for the power user using WHS, but I would put it in my parents house as a part of there back up solution! It really is easy to use! Refer to #1 in the Pro column. There is more to come, so hang with me.
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    Nice write up Jim. I know that these are nice units and the quality is there in terms of their pricing however this just does not work for me. Given a USB 3 connection I am sure that the speed would be better but I believe from the tests I have seen that even their fastest unit is 50% slower than a good WHS. The issue I have is not the pricing but rather that if I am going to uses Vail for backup and remote access, I just do not want another box hanging outside. I much rather find a safe way to use the motherboard controllers and not add another box. Also, I rip BD directly to my WHS in one operation and the performance just will not cut it. The major reason I got rid of my other NAS units and external drives was speed. WHS solved that problem for me. One thing I have learned with speed is that you can never go backwards. To go to something like this after we have been using WHS is a quantum step backwards. The moral of the story is that we have to find a better way and in my opinion, this is not it. Great write up and excellent detail and thanks for shedding some light on this and confirming some of what I had read about.
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    I hope I didn't give the impression that I thought this setup would be too slow, frankly I don't know, and I look forward to your investigation. Thanks for adding the considerations for power, again, I look forward to seeing what you find!
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    Hi, Nice write up however I am one of those power users so this would not work for me. I am one of those angry user of the Vail beta now with no DEv2. I just purchased the Norco RPC-4224 rack cases that holds 24 Drives and now I am at a loss as too what I am going to do. I look foward to your reviews of other salutions that will NOT cost an arm and a leg that would allow me to use my own hardware and not some OEM limited box as an add-on. Keep up the good work and thanks for the review of Drobo but no thanks. Just a side note, anyone else wondering y Drobo forums are LOCKED DOWN and only registored owners with a serial number can access it? Hmmm HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!
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    Thanks for the comments. I totally understand your position with having purchased new hardware and now wondering what to do with it! I think it might become clearer over the next several months. As far as the closed forums, that has been mentioned in our forums and I am working with Drobo to get a clear answer. I belive that they will be opening up sometime next year, but I wil have more info in part 2 of this post. Watch for it.
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