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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