Some of you who have followed me for a long time know that at one time, I was a big proponent of Drobos. Like all similar companies Drobo has had its ups and downs. But it appears they have solved their past problems, updated their technology, installed a new CEO and management team and once again are providing solutions that photographers need to know about.
I recently obtained Drobo’s latest product – the 5D. Don’t confuse that with a Canon camera. The 5D is a five-bay drive that utilizes very fast Thunderbolt technology. Like the new Apple fusion drives, it also takes advantage of solid-state drives (SSDs) in addition to hard drives to really boost performance. It’s a new Drobo from the ground up and includes USB 3.0 as all as a new and unique reliability feature (normally found on much more expensive systems) that protects data even in the event of unexpected power failure. Drobo 5D includes a battery that protects all data in memory, or cache.
It does still rely on the BeyondRAID technology that was pioneered by Drobo. It allows users to hot swap drives in the event of a drive failure. But since this is not pure RAID, you’ll need TWO Drobos in case you ever have an unlikely catastrophic failure since no other RAID device can read the drives you install in the 5D. (NOTE – most RAID drives sold in the US are likewise proprietary in this fashion, although there are a few exceptions.) You could also overnight the Drobo housing to California for a replacement if you didn’t need 24-hour access to your data. Again this is only relevant if you were to have a complete failure of the housing – not the drives. My pal Rich Harrington has operated his unit for longer than I have. In fact he has several and none has ever failed.
Setting up the Drobo is pretty darn easy. It even comes with a Thunderbolt cable AND a USB 3.0 cable. (Are you listening Apple?) There are a few glitches in their documentation which I will cover here. But overall, the setup process was painless.
First, before you do anything, start downloading the Drobo Dashboard software from Drobo. While that’s installing, turn the drive on its side and write down your serial number. You’ll need that for registration. The next step is not documented well. If you’re using the tiering technology (Again think Apple fusion drive) you’ll want to install the SSD card FIRST, before you plug-in the drive; before you install any SATA drives; before you do ANYTHING else. (The Drobo engineers say this isn’t a big deal – you can actually do it after. If you want to add an mSATA SSD after you’ve already installed drives in the main bays, you need to power down the Drobo first, install the mSATA SSD, the then power it back on.)
I am using a Crucial 64 GB SSD ($75). There’s no real advantage to buying a larger card than that. Drobo calls the place where you install the SSD the “Accelerator Bay.” It’s user-serviceable and accepts an industry-standard mSATA SSD, leaving all five 3.5″ drives bays available for high-capacity HDDs.
Once you’ve done all that, install at least two hard drives. I populated my Drobo with five Seagate Model: ST3000DM001 drives at a cost of $150 each. These are three Terabyte drives that leave me with roughly just under 11 Terabytes of usable storage after redundancy.
Then hook up the power, turn on the switch, open the Drobo Dashboard, register your product and you’re ready to go to work. Double-click on the Drobo icon. You’ll be promoted to set up and format the drives. This is where I first noticed something different. In the old days, with the original Drobos, it took a long time to format the drives. Heck – even my ultra-high-end and very expensive Promise Pegasus R6 drives took a long time to format and spin up. This is NOT the case with the Drobo 5D. In less than a five minutes I had the drive up on my Macintosh desktop.
One note. I am on a Mac so when I first set the drive up I set it up for 16TB capacity. If you’re using Windows and you never plan to use that much capacity select the actual size you want because on a Windows machine you will see it take longer to work. On a Mac it doesn’t matter.
I immediately tested the hot swappable drive. My assistant loaded 400 raw photos onto the 5D, and then confirmed they would open in Photoshop. Then while using the Drobo he pulled one of the drive bay doors open and pulled out a drive. A yellow light appeared but the drive kept functioning. We re-inserted the drive and the Drobo self-healed, and rebuilt the drive in a matter of minutes. Again this is much better performance than I got in the old days from a Drobo.
The footprint for this large drive is slightly smaller on my desk than the original Drobo. It’s well-built. The user-interface is simple and that’s something most photographers will really appreciate. There is a geek culture surrounding RAID drives and these are some of the geekiest, most pedantic people on the planet. They like to work from the command promp. Me? I think I’m like most photographers. I just want my drives to hold my photos safely. Here Drobo shines above everything else I’ve tested. You don’t need to know any voodoo to make this thing work. The fully-automated recovery system is self-aware (Hal?) and you just need to trust it.
As part of our torture test we inserted different drive brands and sizes and no matter what we threw at the Drobo. It held up. It simply adjusted itself and went to work.
The next test was the scary one. We pulled the power on the Drobo 5D to make sure the battery-backed cache worked. Wow! It does. It’s as if nothing happened. We put the power back on, and the Drobo did its thing for a few minutes and there it was – happily on the desktop. Don’t try that on any other hard-drive you own. You’ll be VERY unhappy with the results. This is truly an amazing feature and one that gives me great piece of mind.
Now for the speed tests. We don’t have any special scientific hardware or software for this but we did use a benchmark test my tech wrote. Here are the results. We had an average 240 MB/s write speed and an average 300MB/s read speed. This is NOT as fast as my Pegasus R6, but it’s still plenty fast. It’s fast enough to run Aperture, Lightroom or Photoshop on if you’re using the SSD cache and the Thunderbolt cable.
It’s nice that the Drobo supports USB 3.0. The company claims they have the only system of its kind supporting both Thunderbolt and USB 3.0. I can’t find any evidence to dispute that claim. I will note of course that using the USB 3.0 port will not be as fast as Thunderbolt. Also, I am sorry to say you can’t use this as a boot drive via Thunderbolt. But you can via USB 3.0. I don’t know if this is a Drobo thing or a limitation of Thunderbolt, but it would be cool if you could boot via Thunderbolt some day.
Since I own six of the Promise 12TB Pegasus R6 DAS hard drive arrays, I am very familiar with them. We’ve never had a problem with any of them. Fully configured to deliver 10TB of useable drive space they cost on average $2230 each. A similarly-equipped Drobo 5D with SSD card and five Three Terabyte drives sells for $1675.
That is a difference of $555 and it is nothing to sneeze at. I might add that the Promise R6 doesn’t ship with a Thunderbolt cable so that’s another $50 bringing the total price difference to more than $600.
For most of you, $600 is a new lens or even a used back up body. If you’re looking for a reliable, fast, easy-to-use storage system, I think you have to take a look at Drobo’s new 5D.
The Drobo has a smaller footprint, offers battery-backed cache, USB 3.0 and a simpler interface. While Promise offers a slightly faster solution, the extra cost and desktop footprint are strikes against it. I would have no problem buying the Drobo 5D in place of the R6.