The Perfect Data Backup Solution

The Perfect Data Backup Solution

Jun 17, 2011

The Drobo FS in-depth, Part 1: what it is, how it works

By  | Published 2 months ago

I have a buddy named Matt who’s a digital pack-rat. He’s the guy you call when you need a movie or a TV show, because chances are he’s got it. Among the finer things in his collection is the entire multi-decade run of “Dr. Who,” including lots of rare black and white Hartnell stuff. He’s long since reached the point where he could put his collection on random play and die of old age before he sees a repeat.

Matt’s not alone, either—we’re coming to a point where everyone and their dog has at least a digital music and photo collection, and tons of folks (especially folks in the Ars reader demographic) have collections of ripped movies and TV shows on top of that. All that stuff has to reside somewhere, and to that end there’s a huge array of network attached storage devices—NAS boxes, as we in the biz say—that can keep the data safe, with redundancy and protection that you wouldn’t get from storing the collection on your computer’s main hard drive or on a single external disk.

I recently got my hands on a Drobo FS from Data Robotics, and I’ve been using it intensively for some time now. If you’re interested in the Drobo, then this two-part review is perhaps the longest and most thorough look at the device you’ll find anywhere. Indeed, it’s more than just a review—In Part 1 I dig into Data Robotics patent filings so I can explain how the device works. In Part 2, I’ll describe how the Drobo functions in day-to-day use.

How a WHS snob ended up with a Drobo

Though my own media collection pales next to Matt’s, I’m no slouch—I’ve got my own sprawling collection of stuff, and since late 2007 I’ve been a user and evangelist of Windows Home Server, my favorite Microsoft product. Windows Home Server has two killer features: first, it will painlessly and automatically back up any Windows PC on your home network; and second, you can toss a bunch of differently sized hard drives into it and it will treat them all as a single usable glob of space. Microsoft accomplished the second feat with a technology they called Drive Extender. It uses some clever tricks and a specialized service or two to elegantly create the functional illusion of a single giant hard drive out of multiple hard drives, without the server administrator having to manage RAID groups or LUNs or any of the things that high-end servers and disk arrays need to approximate the same functionality. It was great. Over the years, I seamlessly grew my WHS from two terabytes of space on four 500 GB disks up to more than five terabytes on several mixed-size disks.

I say “was great,” though, because the times are changing. Version 2 of Windows Home Server, currently under development, has seen Drive Extender grow, change, and then get canceled, a victim of Microsoft’s storage server line trying to be all things to all people. There have always been other options in the home storage arena besides Windows Home Server, and those continue to evolve—Synology, Linksys, Netgear, and other companies all have devices that do more or less the same things as WHS, with varying degrees of success and sophistication, and the truly brave and skilled can even roll their own solution with tools likeFreeNAS. FreeNAS even includes ZFS, a filesystem designed by Sun from the ground up with lots of advanced, fancy features which offer huge advantages over other more pedestrian filesystems—things like built-in snapshots and the ability to (sort of) seamlessly grow your pooled storage as you add disks.

I met the news of Drive Extender’s demise with a lot of nerd angst. My home-built WHS rig was beginning to creak with age, and I was eager to get the release version of WHS 2 installed on some shiny new kit and migrate over to it. Without Drive Extender, though, one of the two most compelling reasons to use WHS has been removed (and the other reason, backups of all my Windows-based PCs, doesn’t help me because I don’t have any Windows-based PCs in the house anymore). Rather than deal with installing an older server OS on brand new hardware with all the potential annoyances that brings—WHS v1, after all, is based on Windows Small Business Server 2003—it was time to look for something else.

Most of the consumer NAS boxes available didn’t hold my interest. I’d lived for too long in a world where I could upgrade my hard drives any time I wanted, and most consumer boxes use some flavor of traditional RAID—meaning that upgrades are complicated and potentially destructive. That limited the choices to things with disk pooling and seamless expansion, and I gave some ZFS-based options a hard look before deciding to pass. The ease-of-use still isn’t anywhere near what I was used to, and the process of adding capacity to an existing ZFS setup is still a little…well, hairy.

That left one option, and it was one I’d actively ridiculed in the past: Data Robotics.

Data Robotics has been around for years. Their main product is a line of direct- and network-attached storage devices called “Drobos,” squat little black cubes with a reputation for being both terribly easy to use and terribly slow. Data Robotics’s launch product in 2007 was a four-bay device that attached to your computer (which was preferably a Mac) via Firewire 400/800 or USB 2.0, with no way for it to act as a NAS without an expensive Ethernet add-on module. In spite of its limitations, what made the original Drobo great was that there was practically nothing to configure—you shoved disks into it and it acted like a giant external hard drive, and it used a proprietary RAID-like scheme called BeyondRAID to keep the data protected (more on that in a bit).

Much like with Windows Home Server, times have changed. Far from just the single computer-attached Firewire box, Data Robotics now has a whole passel of different Drobos, from an upgraded version of the original four-bay Drobo all the way up to much larger eight-bay offerings for small businesses that need easy-to-manage NAS systems (one box, the DroboElite, even does iSCSI, if you’re into that kind of thing). As derisive as I’d been in the past of Data Robotics products, I couldn’t stop myself from looking again and again at the Drobo FS, a five-bay box with built-in gigabit Ethernet that shares data to Windows and Mac and Linux hosts alike. It was the only thing I could find that brought forward the WHS-style disk flexibility that had become my hardest requirement…plus, it was cool-looking and black and had colored lights on it.

So I bought one.

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