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DroboPro: Drobo bigger, better, rack-mounted and faster


The Data Robotics Drobo brought easy mass storage to power users and small businesses back in 2007, and since then, higher hard disk capacities and word of mouth have turned it into a popular storage solution. The simple design, proprietary BeyondRaid redundant-disk technology, and easy expandability are perfect for anyone who has a lot of information to store, and for businesses with up to 25 employees. However, Data Robotics wanted to move further into the lucrative SMB storage market and didn't have a product that would handle up to 100 people and fit in a standard server rack.

That all changed this morning, with the announcement of DroboPro. Think of Drobo on steroids, with slots for eight SATA drives instead of four, two FireWire 800 ports, a USB 2.0 port, and an Ethernet port that is used for iSCSI connectivity, and throughput rates in the 75-80 megabyte/second range. Give this über-Drobo the same easy setup and management, quiet operation, and cool looks of the original device, and you have a winner.

I interviewed Tom Loverro, Director of Product Marketing at Data Robotics, last week about the company's new product.

DroboPro can easily sit on a desktop, and there's an optional 3U mount for standard 19" racks (see photo below). In terms of connectivity, nobody in their right mind would consider hooking a DroboPro up to an Xserve with USB 2.0. FireWire 800 isn't much of an improvement, but the new iSCSI support with DroboPro promises to make this a popular high-speed option for connecting the box to Macs and Xserves. iSCSI has become a low-cost alternative to the expensive Fibre Channel options used for storage connectivity.

Leopard didn't ship with an iSCSI initiator, the software required to make a standard NIC and network stack think it's actually a fast SCSI device. So what did Data Robotics do? They came up with their own free iSCSI initiator that is part of the standard Drobo Dashboard application, and it ships with the device. Creating an iSCSI connection to a Mac is as easy as firing up Drobo Dashboard, turning on the DroboPro, plugging a Gigabit Ethernet cable into the back of the DroboPro (below) and then plugging the other end into an Gigabit Ethernet port on a switch or directly into your target Mac. Within about 3 seconds, the connection is made and the DroboPro is mounted and ready to use.

According to Loverro, the decision for Data Robotics to write their own iSCSI initiator was an easy one. "We didn't want the consumer to plug in the DroboPro and then get a message telling them they need to purchase a $200 application to get it to work. That doesn't fit in with our design philosophy," said Loverro. [Note that there is a free iSCSI initiator for the Mac from GlobalSAN, but it may not work with the Drobo setup. -Ed.]

That design philosophy is what made the original Drobo so popular with Mac users, since it is similar to Apple's philosopy of tight integration between hardware and software, as well as making sure that the hardware is useful right out of the box.

As with Drobo, no tools are required to install hard drives into the device. You just take a "naked" SATA drive out of its static-proof bag and push it, connector first, into one of the slots. No cables or power adapters are required. The capacity and placement of the drives makes no difference; you could put a few 1.5 TB bare drives into the first couple of slots, then grab some older 500 and 250 GB drives and fill out the remaining slots. When a drive nears capacity, the LED near the bottom of the drive slot turns from green to yellow. Considering the current prices for 1.5 TB drives (as low as $104), you could buy one, replace the existing drive, and your capacity issues will be gone.

Speaking of capacity, the DroboPro is designed for future expansion up to 256 TB if the capacity of individual drives allows it (no promises; SATA might not still be a prevalent connector by the time that's possible). You can connect several DroboPros to a standard Gigabit Ethernet switch, then to one Mac or Xserve for even more capacity. I'm personally holding out to be the first Mac user with a petabyte (1,024 terabytes) of storage.

One other new feature of DroboPro is Dual Disk Redundancy. What this means is that two of the drives in your DroboPro can fail simultaneously with no loss of data. Enabling Dual Disk Redundancy just takes one click, and it is done without needing to reformat the array or migrate data to another array. Switching back to Single Disk Redundancy can be done the same way.

DroboPro also uses what are called Smart Volumes. Unlike RAID or traditional hard volumes, Smart Volumes don't use up the entire allocated chunk of space immediately; instead, they grow in size up to the allocated amount (up to 16 TB) as data is saved to them. A new version of Drobo Dashboard is planned for June of 2009 that will allow up to sixteen 16 TB Smart Volumes to be created.

The pricing on DroboPro is excellent. If you take a look at the Mac storage solution market, there is an interesting gap right now. On the low end, you have the original Drobo at about $500 (without drives). At the high end, you have solutions like the Promise VTrack E-Class 4 TB RAID Subsystem at $7,500 (with drives and 3U rack mount). A DroboPro with 4 TB of storage and a 3U rack mount kit sells for $1,949, and you don't need the special Fibre Channel card required with the Promise VTrack.

Of course, some of our readers are probably taking offense right now, and for good reason. The Promise RAID is much faster than the DroboPro, and the Fibre Channel interconnect offers much higher throughput than iSCSI can. Data Robotics is looking at a different market; while the Promise RAID Subsystem is great for performance-critical situations (multiuser video editing, for example), DroboPro is aimed at simple mass storage for up to 100 users at a time.

That's not to say that you can't do professional video work on a DroboPro. To quote Loverro, "One of the beta testers, who is well known in the video editing and animation community, is editing on DroboPro using Final Cut Pro with three video streams of 720p using Apple's ProRes with no problems. That's not to say you can do 5 streams of uncompressed 4K on DroboPro though -- that sort of situation obviously calls for a different type of solution. But I do think we address 75% of the video editing market with this product according to our research."

I did a quick calculation and realized that a DroboPro with the rack kit and 8 Western Digital 2.0 TB SATA drives could be purchased for as little as $3,902. That's not including taxes or shipping costs, and assumes the drives are purchased from the lowest cost source. With those 8 drives installed, you have instant access to 12.5 TB of usable storage with single disk redundancy or 10.9 TB with dual disk redundancy. Two of your drives can fail, and you'll still have access to all of your data. When 4.0 TB drives hit the market, you can start swapping out some of your 2.0 TB drives. When 8.0 TB drives hit the market, throw them into the mix. DroboPro will let your storage grow as your needs and the capacity of available drives grow.

If you own a current Drobo and want to move up to the DroboPro, Data Robotics has come up with an owner loyalty plan that will ease your transition. Anyone who purchased a Drobo prior to April 6, 2009 will get an immediate $200 of the MSRP of a DroboPro. The DroboPros are available today from the Data Robotics site.

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