TUAW's review of the DroboPro, plus a discount deal for readers

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TUAW's review of the DroboPro, plus a discount deal for readers

Data Robotics delivered their "super-sized" version of the Drobo earlier this year. DroboPro has 8 drive bays into which you can drop 3.5" SATA drives of almost any capacity, from the old 160 GB model you've been using to hold the backup of your iTunes library to that 2 TB Western Digital Caviar drive you just purchased. Using a proprietary storage technology called BeyondRAID, Data Robotics makes it easy to use a DroboPro to give you a big box 'o storage right now, and easily expand in the future.

Data Robotics recently lent me a DroboPro for a detailed review, and I was able to give it a thorough workout. Read on to find out more about the DroboPro and an excellent deal available to readers of TUAW.

The DroboPro itself is attractive and is designed to sit on a desktop, although you can purchase option rack "wings" to mount the device in any standard 19" rack. There are no special power requirements, so you just plug a single AC cord into an outlet or UPS and you're ready to go. I know that this will probably drive a number of the system admins in our midst absolutely nuts, since they want redundancy for everything. If the lack of a second power supply is of critical importance to you, then you may wish to consider a more traditional RAID system.

In a phone discussion with Mark Fuccio, Senior Director of Products & Markets at Data Robotics, Mark mentioned that the concept of BeyondRAID is that you basically just buy what you need storage-wise to start out, mixing and matching drives, and then add more drives or swap them out for larger capacity drives later. He estimates that they're offering 95% of the functionality of a traditional RAID setup at about 10% of the initial price. For people who really need that last 5% of functionality (for example, fiber channel interface for video work), they're going to need to look at another and more traditional solution.

Looking at the front of the DroboPro, you can see 8 drive bays, each with a locking lever and door. As with the Drobo, there's no need to put the drives into any special carrier -- you just push the bare drives into the DroboPro, connector-first, until the locking lever springs up into place. Each locking lever has a large LED on the front of it that defines the status of the drive. A green light indicates that the system is healthy, a yellow light warns you that you should add another drive or replace an existing drive with one with more capacity, a flashing green/yellow light is telling you that an important system function is underway and that you should not remove the drive, a red light indicates that you should add another drive (you usually only see this when the DroboPro is completely empty), and a flashing red light denotes an emergency situation where you have a drive failure occurring.

By the way, if you're like me and there's more than one way to put a drive into a DroboPro, you will. That's OK, because the drive won't go all the way into the bay, and the light won't go on. Just pull it back out, put it back in the correct way, and you're on your way to storage goodness.

There are other LEDs as well, making the DroboPro as colorful as a Christmas tree when it's busy. At the bottom of the right side of the case as you're looking at the DroboPro from the front, there are power and activity lights. When the DroboPro is in normal operation, the power light is a steady green, and the activity light will flicker to indicate read/write activity. Also on the right side of the case is a stack of blue LEDs that are used to visually indicate the relative capacity used in the array.

On any Mac or Windows PC that you're using with the DroboPro, you should install the Drobo Dashboard. This is a piece of software that is used to monitor and control the DroboPro. Just after turning on the DroboPro and pushing in the first drive, Drobo Dashboard warned me that a new firmware update was available. With one click, it downloaded and installed the firmware update, even restarting the DroboPro in the process. Drobo Dashboard also provides warnings of critical or important situations. For example, after I pushed in the first drive (a Western Digital 500 GB drive), the software warned me that the drives did not appear to be formatted. Instead of just warning me, Drobo Dashboard also provided a simple choice to format the drive (see below).

As noted in the "Droboisms," a short list of things you should know that is printed on a thick paper sign attached to the front cover of the drive, installing any drive into a DroboPro erases that drive. This can be very useful if you're "recycling" old drives and don't want to take the time to clean them off prior to use. The other Droboism is that once you initialize the DroboPro the first time, you don't need to format any other drives added later. You just plug 'em in and let DroboPro do the rest of the work.

Drobo supports several file systems, including HFS+, NTFS, FAT32, and Linux EXT3. For Mac users, you'll most likely want to use HFS+, and the Drobo setup options (see below) gently nudge you in that direction:

The next step in setting up your DroboPro is deciding how large you'd like your volume(s) to be. By default, Drobo Dashboard sets your DroboPro to the largest size for a single volume, which is 16 TB.

Once you've added some drives to your DroboPro (see the video for details on how easy that is to do), Drobo Dashboard provides excellent monitoring tools. As you can see in the screenshot below, it shows exactly how many drives are installed in the bays and what their capacity is. In this screenshot, the drives are colored yellow, corresponding to the LEDs on the array flashing green and yellow. This indicates that the DroboPro is busy setting up the RAID environment, so it's not a good idea to remove any of the drives. When the lights go solid green, the array is busy redundantly protecting your data.

One nice detail of the DroboPro is that it provides data scrubbing. Over a 30-day period, the DroboPro will analyze every block of data on each and every drive. If it finds a bad block, it will actually fix and relocate that data to another block on the drive, then mark the block as unusable in the future. When a drive fails or another issue (running out of capacity, for instance) occurs, the Data Dashboard software can send an email to an administrator warning of the fault.

Drobo Dashboard has a Tools pane that is extremely useful for anyone who is administering one or more Drobo devices. As you can see in the screenshot below, you can do everything from blink the lights on a Drobo (useful if you're trying to find a specific device in a crowded server room), to renaming the Drobo or the individual volumes on it. Advanced controls also provide the way to shut down the device gracefully or add or delete volumes.

With most traditional RAID arrays, you need to make sure that all of the drives being installed are of the same capacity and (in many cases) model. Not so with the DroboPro -- you can take any compatible SATA drive of any size and stick it into a bay. This makes expansion a piece of cake in the future. With the sample drive I used, Data Robotics sent along one 500GB drive and four 1TB drives. I could very well have grabbed a couple of spare 250GB drives I have in my office and thrown them into the mix as well. If, in the future, I needed more capacity, I could replace one of the 250GB drives with a 2TB drive. This is all done on the fly; I'd just yank out the 250GB drive, push in the 2TB drive, and walk away. DroboPro does the rest. As drive capacities increase in the future as they are bound to do, the maximum capacity of DroboPro increases as well. If 3 or 4 TB drives become available in the near future, I could add 8 of those to the DroboPro and keep growing the capacity of the array.

Mark Fuccio pointed out that the maximum capacity of SATA drives tends to double every 18 months or so. That means that we're nearing the point where 3 TB 3.5" SATA drives are going to be available, which translates to a larger maximum capacity for the DroboPro. The theoretical maximum capacity for DroboPro is 16x16 TB volumes, or about a quarter of a petabyte! Of course, we'd need to have 32 TB 3.5" SATA drives to reach that capacity...

DroboPro provides three different connectivity options; USB 2.0, Firewire 800, and iSCSI. While the first two options are familiar to most Mac users, iSCSI is something relatively new. iSCSI uses a Gigabit Ethernet connection and a software "initiator" to create a high-speed connection between the Mac and DroboPro. With many high-end RAID setups, fiber connections are the norm, requiring a significant outlay for fiber switches, adapter cards, and cables. iSCSI only requires a standard Ethernet cable.

What's cool about iSCSI is that you can use it several different ways. If you're just connecting one DroboPro to one Mac, you can make a straight cable connection between the two devices. If you want to connect a group of DroboPros to a Mac, you can connect the DroboPros to a Gigabit Ethernet switch on the same subnet, and then use the Drobo Dashboard software to assign each DroboPro a specific IP address.

I did a few tests just to see how fast the DroboPro was. Connected to my iMac over USB 2.0, copying a large user folder (16.56 GB) took 28 minutes, 30 seconds, at a rate of about .58 GB / minute. Now it was time to test iSCSI on the iMac.

Somehow, I expected this to be more difficult than it was. Since I had just installed Drobo Dashboard on the iMac, I ran the included Ethernet cable between the iSCSI port on the back of the DroboPro and the Gigabit Ethernet port on my iMac, and within a few seconds, the DroboPro had nicely self-configured itself and appeared on my iMac desktop. The same copy done over iSCSI took only 12 minutes, 8 seconds, or about 1.34 GB / minute -- 2.3 times faster than with USB 2.0. The moral of this story? If you want fast copy speeds, use iSCSI -- it's easy to set up and it's much faster than USB. As my iMac doesn't have a Firewire 800 port, I did not test Firewire connectivity. Also note that these are very unscientific tests, and your transfer speeds will vary depending on your specific setup.

Now came the fun part. One of the cool things about the Drobo and DroboPro is that you can add or yank drives while the device is working, so I decided to copy some other huge files to the DroboPro and plug a drive in while it was happening. Other than fumbling the drive installation, since I was doing it with one hand while holding a camcorder in the other, nothing happened. The drive just became a part of the array. By this point, I had added three of the four 1 TB drives to the initial 500 GB drive. According to Drobo Dashboard, this meant that I had about 2.21 TB available storage. Dashboard showed that I had 3.50 TB of drives installed, with a real capacity of 3.16 TB, and with 993.85 GB of storage being used for protection and another 4.07 GB for overhead.

If you want to see just how much capacity you can add to a DroboPro with a mix of existing and new drives that you may have laying around the office, you can use the Capacity Calculator for DroboPro. Just drag drives of varying capacity to the calculator, and you'll see just how much usable capacity you'll have available.

The next fun test was to start up a TV episode M4V playback in QuickTime X, then pull a drive at random out of the DroboPro. The playback continued smoothly, but the remaining drive lights began to flash yellow and green, which (as good students, you should remember this) meant that the other drives should not be removed. Drobo Dashboard had a "Data Protection In Progress" message with a progress indicator showing that protection (making sure that the data on the removed drive was properly copied to the remaining drives) would take about another 30 minutes.

One thing that's different about the DroboPro compared to its older, but smaller sibling is that it can be set up through Drobo Dashboard for RAID 6 dual disk redundancy. That means that whenever you have three or more drives installed in the device, you can turn on the option to allow the DroboPro to recover from two failed or removed drives at once. This isn't difficult to do -- it's a single-click option in Drobo Dashboard. This reduces the amount of usable space in the array, but is a great option for the ultra-paranoid user. While the DroboPro is in the process of setting up the dual disk redundancy (it took 42 minutes with four 1 TB drives and one 500 GB drive), you are reminded to not remove any of the drives. Mark Fuccio of Data Robotics recommended setting up the DroboPro for dual disk redundancy before moving any data to the array.

The DroboPro works well with Time Machine. If you have a number of people who are backing up their Macs to a central server or machine with an attached DroboPro, you can actually divide the space into up to 16 Smart Volumes, all of which can grow to a maximum capacity as the amount of Time Machine data increases over time.

My overall impression of the DroboPro is that it is a flexible, inexpensive, and ridiculously easy-to-use mass storage solution. I'm very tempted to take advantage of the DroboPro offer (see below) and get one of these for capturing all of the media that we have in our household, as well as having a big, redundant storage bin for Time Machine backups.

As an Apple Consultants Network member, I have a number of clients who have been using the original Drobo for expandable storage. The devices have been rock-steady for me, with no glitches or problems from the first day they were installed. I would have no qualms about recommending the DroboPro for my clients with larger storage requirements, and I plan on doing so when the opportunity arises.

The TUAW Deal
If you're intrigued by the DroboPro and want expandable, fast, and relatively inexpensive mass storage, we have a deal for you!

The price of a bare (no drives) DroboPro is US$1,499. Data Robotics has generously offered US$200 off of the price for up to 200 TUAW readers or 7 days, whatever comes first. All you need to do to take advantage of this offer is to use the code TUAW200 (all caps) when purchasing a DroboPro from the Data Robotics online store. Feel free to pass along this information and the coupon code to anyone who might be interested in a DroboPro. After all, it may be the last storage device they'll ever have to purchase!
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