The Drobo Data Storage System Review

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Last fall I applied for and received a grant that will allow my synagogue to build a new technology lab. Within the next few months we will have a number of iMac desktop computers and a host of iPads being used by our kids and adults alike. In fact, I’m working on a special tutorial program for students becoming bar and bat mitzvah that will run on the iPad. It uses the awesome iOS application MentalCase. More on that at a later date.

When I found out we were getting the grant, I reached out to a number of companies with whom we work for some assistance. Both Kensington and Zagg were fantastic about helping us get some of the accessories we need for the iPads we will be buying. I also realized that, as we do more and more with digital media, there needs to be a good, safe way to protect everything. I’ve had too many times when the backup drive itself failed and while it’s great to keep online back-ups, there is something about the safety and security of being backed up locally that is a huge comfort. For that reason I turned to Drobo and asked if by any chance they might be open to my reviewing one of their systems and then using it in the TSTI computer lab. They were kind enough to send along a review sample of their introductory level RAID backup technology, and I thought we might take a look at it together.

What makes this system so phenomenal, even beyond the really innovative technology they have designed, is that the Drobo allows you to swap drives in the event of a failure or if you simply want to increase capacity without turning it off. Additionally, you don’t need to understand much or anything about RAID technology to make it work, nor do you need to be a computer whiz to use it.

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The Hype:

Meet your new storage solution, the safe and expandable Drobo. It’s so simple that anyone can use it, yet powerful enough for business. Drobo connects to your computer or network and provides redundant data protection without the complexities of traditional RAID.

Dynamically expand storage any time: Drobo currently holds up to 36TB, depending on the model, using any combination of 3.5″ disk drives. The Drobo family offers FireWire, USB, eSATA, Ethernet, and iSCSI connectivity options, so you get the data protection you need along with the speed and interface you want.

Redundant Protection, No Headaches: Drobo provides the redundant protection of much more expensive storage in a format you don’t have to configure or manage. Drobo BeyondRAID™ technology, built into every Drobo, delivers all of the benefits of traditional RAID, leaves many of the limitations behind, and brings together enhanced protection, reliability, expandability, and ease-of-use.
Learn More about BeyondRAID Technology »|Get the Drobo Technology Innovation eBook »

Incomparable Expandability: With Drobo, buy just the storage you need now and expand it as the amount of data you need to store grows. Mix and match drive brands, capacities, and speeds. Replace your smallest drive with a larger one and immediately use the new capacity in a matter of seconds. It’s as simple as inserting the new drive into an empty slot or replacing a smaller drive with a larger. Expand up to 24TB on a single volume as larger drive sizes become available. Drobo creates one large storage pool. Dive in and eliminate the need for multiple external storage drives and devices.

Storage on your Terms: Safety access and quick access go hand in hand with Drobo. Whether you’re directly attached to your personal computer, sharing files with others over the network, or backing up a business application—Drobo’s the best choice.
Drobo connects to Mac, Windows, Linux, and server virtualization systems with ease. Everyone can take advantage of simple, powerful, and complete Drobo data protection.

Plug In Peace of Mind: Just plug in Drobo and your data protection is ready. Add disks at any time for additional protected capacity. Drobo can even solve problems by itself. Lights on the front tell you what’s happening—if you can read a traffic light, you’re already a Drobo expert.

The World’s Easiest-to-Use Storage Array: Inside every Drobo is the revolutionary BeyondRAID™ storage technology that protects data against a hard disk crash, yet is simple enough for anyone to use. As long as you have more than a single disk in Drobo, all data on Drobo is safe no matter which hard disk fails. There’s no need to worry about anything else.

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My Experience:

Drobo offers a variety of systems. The one that is right for you will depend on where you are planning to use it, what kind of storage you need and how much expandability you will need.


The smallest system, the one we were sent, is still nightly capable.

Let’s walk through the setup process. I was a bit nervous about it since I have never before dealt with RAID, but I found it to be remarkably short and simple.


The first thing you need to do is to download the Drobo Dashboard. The company includes a CD with the unit but it is also available as a download from the website which, of course, is what I did. Is available for both Mac and PC and it installs rather quickly.

Main View: When Drobo Dashboard is launched, it shows all Drobos connected to your computer and scans the network for file sharing and iSCSI Drobos. The front panel of a Drobo is the primary user interface and Drobo Dashboard lets you see in the front panel all your Drobos from a remote location.

Capacity and Tools: Display a detailed, but easy-to-read, capacity chart with a pull-down menu to access common Drobo tools for naming the device, updating firmware, and shutting down. With one click, see exactly how raw disk capacity is being used and how much space is available.

Status: You can get detailed status about the Drobo and its drives. Since Drobo supports mixed drive types and sizes, it helps to know in which bay a drive is located. When Drobo is running low on space, simply remove the smallest drive and replace it with a larger one.

Settings: All of the settings windows are simple and easy to use — as expected with Drobo. General, network, and administrator settings are each displayed in separate screens.

Management Options: Management options such as email notification are easily configured in Drobo Dashboard. IT administrators have the tools to monitor Drobos without any day-to-day effort.

Help and Support: Directions and helpful tips are included on each screen so they are available to you in the right place at the time you need them. You can also access documentation, information, and even register your Drobo from inside Drobo Dashboard.

After installation the computer has to reboot; lately I’m finding fewer programs which require a reboot after install, but it isn’t a big deal that this one does.

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Once the dashboard is up and running you need to get moving with the hardware. First, you’ll need raw hard drives. That means you can’t have any connectors on the side, no shielding and no other attachments. Just the hard drive itself. I had more than a few line around because of old computers I’ve dismantled so I didn’t have to purchase any.

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The unit the company sent for review has four bays. (They offer units even more bays for large businesses.) The combination of the drives can give a maximum of 24 TB of data storage for this system. (updated)

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Because of the odd sizes of the drives I had lying around, we won’t get anywhere near the 24T limit. And for others with multiple odd sized drives, there is a way on the website to calculate what storage capacity you’ll get depending upon the size drives you choose. It isn’t straight addition because the largest drive doesn’t get used for storage.

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I put a 500 GB drive into the device along with two 160 GB drives and a single 320GB drive.

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I then plugged in the device to a power outlet and used the included USB connection to plug it into my computer. The company also included other ways to connect the device, but because I use the Mac book air I’m stuck with a slow USB 2.0 connection.

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The system immediately told me that the drives weren’t fully usable. This was simply because two of the drives came out of my father’s Windows PC. I figured I might have a use for them some day, so I had grabbed them when I finally got dad to convert to MAC. As such, they were not properly formatted for use by OS X.

Disk Utility

In order to deal with this I simply opened up my disk utility and looked in the side panel for the hard drives. Formatting took just a few minutes.

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This was where I got my first taste of what this system is all about. While I had four hard drives in the Drobo the computer only showed it as a single large hard drive. Turns out the Drobo system takes separate raw hard drives and combines them into one storage space that is redundantly protected. The company calls this a “Drobo disk pack”.

Drobo Dashboard

Once this was done I spent some time checking out the dashboard. It shows me the different drives, how the storage is being used, and it offers a number of additional tools.

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It also indicates the health of each of the drives.

At this point I realized that I had an additional 500 GB hard drive lying around. It seemed like a good opportunity to check out the hot-swappable nature of it. I had to wait for the system to “rebuild” itself because this was the first time it was being used, but once the green lights turned off on the hard drives I popped out one of the 160 GB hard drives and put in the new one.

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Once again I had to format the drive and, once again, it had to rebuild the storage system. Now, however, I had just under a terabyte of storage.

I was actually up and going in fifteen minutes or so. Better still, I didn’t need to understand how it worked and I didn’t need to fiddle around with any settings. Drobo simply allowed me to pop in the hard drive and away it went.

To my mind that is the beauty of this system. It protects your data from a hard drive failure, allows you to have a massive amount of storage, and it doesn’t take any prior experience to use it. It is sophisticated technology but it is hidden behind the simple black box so you don’t have to even think about it as the end-user.

If you have a business or you keep all of your important personal information on a computer (things like pictures, documents, e-mail archives etc.) this is a small price to pay for a good nights sleep. Yes, the least expensive version of the Drobo is rather pricey but how much is your data worth to you? And if you had a hard drive failure and needed to pay someone to try to restore your data it would cost a lot more than the price of one of these. And that is assuming you were able to get your data back at all.

You can check out all the Drobo systems over on the company website.

MSRP: $399

What I Like: Simple to set up and use; Hot swappable drives; Can handle up to 24T of data (updated); Hardware and software work together beautifully

What Needs Improvement: At an MSRP of $399 plus the cost of drives the most basic Drobo system can appear rather pricey. Then again, what is the price of real, effective and simple security?; Not fire and water protective — if there were an ioSafe version would be killer

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4 replies

  1. Looks very easy to use indeed Dan!  
    But what if the laptop and the drobo both get damaged (eg. fire/ water/vandalisme) or stolen. 
    I would still want to see the data backed up in a remote location … 

    • No question, I am big into redundancy. For me the issue is that I have so much to backup that the cloud becomes a but cumbersome. What I actually do to avoid catastrophic failure is create a time machine backup and then store it somewhere else. I then redo every month or two. That means, worst case, I am a month behind.
      Written with Siri

  2. Actually, the 4-bay Drobo can handle a lot more than 2 TB; with the 3TB disk, they can do 12 TB physical total. However, I’d be a bit careful with it; Drobos have had a history of hardware failures and slowly decreasing transfer speeds. I’d point you to their forums, but it seems they’ve taken the old ones down… for some reason. The other thing I never really liked about the entry level Drobos is that they’re direct-attached; they have to be hooked up to a computer to work.

    You might want to consider something from the Synology line; for your purposes I’d suggest a DS411j. They’re quite reliable, about as easy to setup and use, a little cheaper, and can run directly hooked up to the network both wired (since you’re getting a lab setup, I assume you’ll be stashing a router somewhere; you can hide the DS there!) and wirelessly. This means that if you need the lab setup so that files can be accessed at any time, you don’t have to keep a desktop on. Synology also provides iOS and Android apps for file access from mobile devices.