Data Robotics DroboThe slick design and easy setup of Drobo make this USB appliance a strong choice for expanding your system's storage.
Data Robotics' new Drobo is designed to safeguard your data automatically. The company's innovative approach to data handling distinguishes Drobo from the sea of multidrive external enclosures currently available, and Drobo's ease of use and flexibility make it a great fit for environments that lack a dedicated IT person to decipher the complexities of typical RAID storage options.
Drobo is a direct-attached USB 2.0 storage appliance for PC and Mac that sells for $499. The streamlined, attractive device is a bring-your-own-hard-drive affair: The price includes only the chassis, which has four empty Serial ATA drive bays that can handle drives with capacities of up to 1 terabyte each. This actually adds to Drobo's appeal, since its storage capacity can grow to suit your needs. (See the company's site for a look at how you can mix and match hard-drive capacities.)
Unlike RAID 5-based systems, which often require you to tweak settings, Drobo needs no adjustments: The unit employs its own disk and storage virtualization algorithms to provide automatic data redundancy. The device gives users many of the benefits of RAID 5 without the complexity of such a multidrive setup. With its own operating system, CPU, and memory to power data-handling smarts, the appliance allows you to swap a drive out, even as you continue working on files stored on the system. In contrast, a multidrive RAID 5 system would require you to rebuild the RAID before you could start accessing data again.
Drobo knows where each of block of data is stored on a disk, and its algorithms are more flexible than the RAID standards in wide use today. Together, these factors make it easier for the user to manage the data device as one large "pool" of data, and for Drobo to monitor itself for data corruption and disk failure. Other differences between RAID 5 and Drobo: RAID 5 requires three or more drives, with the available capacity defaulting to the lowest-common-denominator capacity among the drives, while Drobo offers a similar level of redundancy across two to four drives; and RAID 5 uses parity, ignoring available space on a disk, while Drobo's storage virtualization can intelligently make use of free space across any of the unit's drives. One warning: While Drobo offers the data redundancy necessary to protect you against hardware failure, it won't protect against theft or catastrophic disaster. You may still want to keep a second copy of your data elsewhere, as a true backup.
In my hands-on time with Drobo, I found the unit exceptionally friendly and easy to use. When you open the box, a three-step setup poster walks you through the basics: Insert the drives, attach the power cable and USB 2.0 cable, and install the software. The user manual, inspiring in its clarity and its approachable layout, helps explain things nicely.
To get started, I slipped in four test drives of varying sizes: 80GB, 160GB, 400GB, and 500GB. Together the drives yielded 593GB of total available storage, out of the total 1140GB in the device. Adding a drive was simply a matter of pushing it into the available space until it clicked; removing drives was simple, too, thanks to the unit's easy-glide lever.
I then powered up Drobo and attached it to my Windows Vista Professional system, which recognized it as a USB mass-storage device, no host software required. The installation of the Drobo Dashboard software went smoothly, too. This no-frills program identifies which drives are in which bays, provides a capacity chart, offers some utilities, and gives you a way to monitor the device beyond the status lights to the right of each drive. The lights use a simple, color-coded approach to informing you of Drobo's status--or more precisely, of the health of each individual drive inside Drobo. If the status lights are green, your data is safe. If the lights turn orange, Drobo is at 85 percent capacity, and you must replace a drive with a larger one. Red lights indicate that your data is not being automatically protected, and that you should add or replace a drive immediately. Data Robotics says that Drobo interacts with the Self-Monitoring and Analysis Reporting Technology (SMART) capabilities integrated on many hard drives, and that the system will proactively report a drive it senses is failing.
The unit ran cool to the touch, and was quiet, too. Data transfer speeds were middle of the road--not as fast as I'd expect from a USB-attached drive, but passable. Drobo isn't about speed, however. You should choose this device if you want an easy way to put extra storage on your desk--or on that of one of your departments--without the IT resources needed to support a RAID 5 system.
Melissa J. Perenson