Lifestyle and Emerging Technology In Plain English

Review: Drobo FS Network Storage Array

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Wow, that title’s a mouthful — Network Storage Array — but don’t let that technical-jargony sounding term scare you, this Drobo FS device is really as easy to use as your Fridge. And for me, that’s a Holy Grail — something that you use and basically forget the complexity.

Whut?
But let me back up a moment and describe what a Network Storage Array (or NAS – Network Attached Storage) device is.

Basically, it’s a box with a bunch of hard drives in it, and some network intelligence. You connect your NAS to your home or office network, and it appears to your computers as if it’s another computer on your network that’s sharing some drives.

You copy stuff to your NAS and share files with any other computer on your network.

Pretty simple, yet difficult to do well

And this is where things get a little squirrely. Some people have a household with mixed computers sharing the same network. In my case, I’ve got Windows (2 varieties), OSX and Linux machines. And some network storage devices don’t play well with different machines on the same network. Sure, the box may say Win/Mac, but invariably issues arise. Not so with the Drobo FS.

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It’s a sleek, black, Fridge
The Drobo FS unit I tested for this review was a 5 bay unit. In it, I installed 3 different sized drives to use for my network storage, not something you normally do in most NAS devices.

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And also unlike most other NAS devices, Drobo doesn’t use standard RAID technology to manage your data. Instead, they use a proprietary combination of hardware and software tools called BeyondRAID.

At the risk of oversimplifying, all the drives you mount in the Drobo FS are merged and are available as one big pool of data storage. Each physical drive loses its unique identity as far as anyone on your network is concerned.

BeyondRAID works behind the scenes, managing the file storage and maintenance. To start to use this storage space, all you do is log into the Drobo Dashboard to create virtual drives visible to your network.

Smart, safe, and accessible
One of the reasons you use a network storage device is to have a safe and reliably managed location to store important data.

The Drobo FS device keeps the data safe by a little technical wizardry. Remember what I said previously about all the drive space being pooled? Well you don’t get all of it to use for your storage.

A Drobo FS device using BeyondRAID needs a certain amount of that drive space for ‘overhead’. This overhead is what keeps your data safe from physical hard drive failures.

One drive goes bad, and the Drobo FS lets you know about it, but your data is safe. Simply swap out the bad drive for a good new drive, and after the unit integrates the drive to the pool, you’ve got all your additional drive space back, without an interruption in work due to a down drive or server.

There’s even a Dual Drive mode that will let you recover from two drives failing at the same time.

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In my case, the drives I’d mounted totalled about 4.5 TB, which actually means that with the BeyondRAID data security system I’ve got about 2.24 TB available for data. Depending on your drive configuration, the percentage available for data can vary. Drobo has a cool Capacity Calculator on their site to help you see how the device would work for your data storage needs.

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I’m storing all my photos and personal videos on the Drobo FS, as well as my music and video collection. By having that data available on my network, I can view the photos or movies from any of my computers, or other network-aware devices such my Blu-Ray player or media centre. And that irreplaceable data is much better protected than if it was just on a single drive on your computer.

Friendly technical assistance
In the course of preparing this review, I did run into one issue with the Drobo FS. One day the device didn’t want to talk to the Drobo Dashboard application, either on my PC or OSX machines. I could still connect to the drives hosted by the Drobo FS, but the Dashboard software was dead in the water.

The solution it seemed, was a simple power down / power up of the Drobo FS, but before I got to that solution, I contacted their Technical Support department via email and was promptly and confidently led through a set of steps to troubleshoot the issue.  Once we got to the power down / up step, everything was back to normal, and it’s been normal in the weeks since.

It’s a Time Machine
More tech issues; just as I was wrapping up this review, my wife’s new Macbook Pro decided to get a little wonky — audio cut out completely and there was an issue with the Boot Camp drive deciding it really wanted to be the only OS on the Mac. So it went back and she received a new replacement. Cool.

But what was really cool was the Time Machine backup we’d done to the Drobo FS, previous to taking the Mac in.

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To use Time Machine on network drives, you have to set up a special virtual drive. On the Drobo FS, it was a simple as creating a new virtual drive and checking a box to set that share to be usable by Time Machine over the network. Once that’s set up, Time Machine settings on the Mac will automatically make intelligent backups of your Mac according to whatever schedule you set.

And it was this backup that saved us hours of reinstalling software from disc, Steam or the app store.

So?
It worked as expected. That may sound merely adaquate, but I’ve found that working with new tech has often had a few surprises in store through the setup and install process.

In this case, my experience with the unit and Drobo tech support was top-notch. The printed documentation, the setup process and the daily operation were all as I expected.

And if you’re a bit more technically advanced, the Drobo FS has the ability to run DroboApps — small useful utilities such as an Apache web server, torrent client or Media Centre application. Full details on DroboApps here.

My take? The Drobo FS is a data storage appliance, deceptivly simple from the outside, reliable and solid on the inside… and it rocks!

 
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