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Drobo (second-gen) mini-review

Ryan Block, @ryan

Despite its shortcomings, we were pretty into the original Drobo when it was launched about a year ago. Not only is it crazy easy to set up and get running, but being able to swap out drives and continuously expand your storage pool without completely replacing your array is obviously advantageous compared to traditional RAID arrays. So it kind of goes without saying that we were stoked to hear Data Robotics was launching a new Drobo, which promised FireWire 800, and quieter, faster operation.

We were kind of hoping they'd get it over with and build in Ethernet (or at least WiFi) connectivity instead of continuing to charge an extra $200 for the DroboShare add-on -- that it comes without left us with some mixed feelings. But then again, this new model doesn't cost any more than the first-gen product ($500), so we can't hold it too much against 'em -- and as we found, it is a fair amount faster (and significantly quieter) than its predecessor. Read on for more.

Gallery: Drobo (second-gen) mini-review | 12 Photos

We won't dwell much longer on the fact that Drobo still doesn't have its own network connectivity (and if we were gamblers, our money would be on integrated DroboShare whenever the third-gen device comes out), but if you're not planning on connecting your device directly to your computer, be prepared for the extra cash outlay. The upshot, however, is that the DroboShare will soon be able to host on-board applications and servers ("DroboApps") that make use of your Drobo's storage pool, potentially giving your whole setup a great deal more value. That is, assuming the developer community puts some weight behind the recently released SDK (more on that here).

If you're just in it for the speed, we found the new Drobo does deliver -- although maybe not on the same levels demonstrated by Data Robotics. Their tests show fairly consistent speed increases of over 2x on writes and between 60-100% on reads using AJA Kona. We did all our tests using Xbench, which showed more conservative improvements over the first-gen device. Using a set of four varied SATA drives, we got somewhat smaller speed increases over USB, usually in the range of 10-20%. Occasionally we got up to 100%+ on some operations (like 4k block uncached random writes) -- but on other operations the new Drobo was actually a slight bit slower (like 256k random uncached reads).

Over FireWire 800, the gains were sometimes much more pronounced -- over 100% faster than first and second-gen Drobo's USB 2.0 when performing 256k random uncached reads, for instance. But with numerous results stuck within a window of 10-33% faster than USB 2.0, often our FireWire tests weren't completely explosive. Simple, large (1.25GB) file copy tests showed that USB 2.0 transfers were about 9% faster in the second-gen Drobo, and an encouraging 49% faster over FireWire 800. If you're working with huge amounts of data, that kind of speed can really tend to add up. (Although it's also worth mentioning that if you're looking for blinding throughput for doing things like editing huge full-HD video streams, you're probably not after a device like the Drobo or competing storage / NAS enclosures anyway, and should likely looking for something a little more on the enterprise / workstation-class end of the spectrum.)

If it fits the bill for what you're looking for, the second-gen Drobo is still our favorite home and prosumer storage device in this class. The new interface and speed increases are easy to appreciate, but even if you trade those in for slower access over a network-attached DroboShare, you still stand to take advantage its forthcoming DroboApps and unusually simple auto-mounting system. And running four hot 7200 RPM drives -- which should be fairly high up on the device's thermal envelope -- the new model is indeed noticeably quieter than its predecessor, even despite the unfortunate loss of the previous model's jet engine exhaust motif. Dropping $500 on a device with no included drives (or even network access) is still pretty tough to swallow for many buyers, but the benefits of having a dynamically expandable, redundant, easy to manage storage pool are still as strong an incentive as ever to be a little spendy -- if not on a Drobo, than perhaps on a ReadyNAS with X-RAID. It's your data, after all, so treat it right.

Reviewer's note: As we mentioned when this review was first published, our unit suffered from a strange series of random, somewhat jarring reboots. Data Robotics narrowed this issue down to a pre-production power Y-connector from our early-release DroboShare. Since replacing it with a production cable we haven't seen the issue pop up again; Data Robotics assured us that they've tested their hardware and software extensively, otherwise never having seen the issue we experienced.

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