[REVIEW] Drobo

Simon Wistow simon at thegestalt.org
Thu Jan 29 21:14:43 GMT 2009

I'll admit, I'm somewhat perverse. I was put off using Macs several 
years ago when I found that I kept bumping up against seemingly arbitary 
limitations, rather like those bits in games where your hero - who has 
hitherto been able to climb a wall single handed whilst fending off 
vampire pterodactyls using a 6ft long broadsword - is suddenly unable to 
to scale a simple, common or garden countryside stile. Or blow it up 
with the ridiculously overpowered nuclear laser powered handheld missle 

So, for somethings I definitely want tweakability and the ability to 
tinker under the bonnet until it fits me just right. These tend to be 
environments in which I do lots of things and in which efficency is
paramount - mail clients, editors, operating systems etc etc.

However, some things I just want to just work - usually single task 
items. So I abhor AV setups where in order to switch between the games 
console and the DVD player you have to set this box here to this knob 
here, flick that lever over there and then enter these 4 things on this 
particular remote control and another 3 things on this *other* remote 
control and ...

It was in this state of mind (which I realise is not everyone's opinion) 
that I bought a Drobo a year ago. 

For those that don't know - a Drobo is RAID for dummies. It's a small 
box that you whack HDDs in and everything "just works". There's no set 
up, no admin, no settings to tweak. It's completely hot swappable - you 
can add or replace drives whilst accessing it with no problems. It's 
also completely hetrogenous - you can mix and match sizes of drives at 
whim. As to be expected your total storage is the combined total of all 
your drives, minus the size of the largest one.

Let's get some frivolities out the way - I think a Drobo looks lovely. 
It sits there looking sleek and black with just the indicator lights 
peeking out. Part of me wishes that the indicator lights were off unless 
the status changed but I realise the arguments against that. Also, it's 
quiet - I had it in my bedroom for ages and it didn't bother me.

The appeal to me was that storage was something that I didn't want to 
care about. Purists may argue that, like cryptography, storage is 
something that you need to understand otherwise it will bite you on the 
arse. And I agree - my important stuff like mail and documents and 
photos is backed up elsewhere - but for minimal effort I get a large 
virtual drive which is resistant to simplistic failures (1 or 2 drives). 

My alternative was either a hardware RAID controller of some kind or a 
small, low profile box running *nix and software RAID. The former gives 
me the willies - one too many stories of hardware RAID controllers 
dying and otherwise servicable data being unrecoverable due to not being 
able to get the exact make, model and rev of controller again. The 
latter violates my zero-effort policy. In my experience no matter how 
simplisticly I've set up a *nix box it still requires more admin and 
more fiddling than a black box that I just plug into the wall.

The downside of the Drobo is the price - mine cost $270 with $50 coupon 
I think and that was without the drives. But that was still cheaper than 
buying a cheap PC, even if you don't factor in my time. With the Drobo 
it literally took me less than 5 minutes to set up from opening the box.

The phrase that really sold the Drobo for me was someone who reviewed an 
early version - he said (and I paraphrase) "It's got to have been a 
really bad month if I can't afford a new drive". Which I think sort of 
sums it up for me. I originally put 3 500Gb drives in mine but recently 
I bought another 500Gb drive from Amazon for $40. I'm nowhere near full 
yet but, when I do start reaching that point I can go swap out a couple 
of the 500Gb with 1Tbs. They're already only $100 so they can only get 
cheaper. And when those get full then I can swap them with 2Tb and so on 
until the cessation of Moore's law bites me on the arse.

Noted blog botherer Frasier Speirs recently wrote a post about how much 
he hated his Drobo


Now to be fair it seems like he had crappy support service but in the 
Drobo's defence I've never had any problems like that whatsoever and I 
had a habit of just unplugging it from my computer and walking away. The 
only slight awkwardness I've had is that either one of the drive bays or 
one of the drives is slightly loose and so sometimes, when I moved it, 
that drive would have to be verified when it was turned back on again. 
The data was still accessible mind you, it just had to be verified. 

So, in conclusion. I heart my Drobo. Since he (it's a he, I've decided) 
was relegated to the AV cabinet I've practically forgotten about him in 
the same way I've forgotten that I have a kettle - it just works and it 
works well and I can just ignore him until I need to stick a new drive 

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