TUAW review: Data Robotics Drobo FS NAS

Network Attached Storage (NAS) is gaining in popularity as an alternative to a home or small office server. A few weeks ago, I reviewed LaCie's Network Space 2, which is a non-expandable 1TB storage solution. For those who want a solution that will be expandable in the future, Data Robotics has recently introduced the Drobo FS.

Like its predecessors, the Drobo FS has multiple drive bays -- five in this case -- into which you can insert standard SATA hard disk drives. The array can be set up for either single or dual-disk redundancy, meaning that one (single) or two (dual) drives can fail without compromising the integrity of your data. Data Robotics' proprietary BeyondRAID technology makes the array easy to set up and expand.

The Drobo FS is easy to set up. The review unit sent to TUAW by Data Robotics was removed from its box, three disk drives were installed by sliding them into available slots on the unit, the power supply was connected, and a gigabit Ethernet cable run from a router to the back of the Drobo. Upon powering up the Drobo FS, the device showed up under the Shared list in the Finder -- so far, so good.

The Drobo FS shipped with a new version of the Drobo Dashboard software on a USB flash drive, which I installed prior to turning on the device. As you'll be able to see in the gallery at the end of this post, the Drobo Dashboard software is identical to that used with other Drobo devices. The software is straightforward to use, and there were no surprises there. Drobo Dashboard can handle multiple Drobo devices, so if you already have a direct-attached Drobo and add an FS to the network, you can control both from the same application.

Data Robotics touts their DroboApps (Linux applications that run on the Drobo device) as a way of adding functionality to the Drobo FS. As you'll recall from the review of the LaCie Network Space 2, that device can be used as an iTunes media "server" and a bit torrent or FTP client with the click of a button. Data Robotics has a large number of DroboApps available, so I decided to try to install a few to see how they worked.

Installation is fairly straightforward -- all you need to do is enable DroboApps by checking a box in the Drobo Dashboard software, then reboot the device. A DroboApps share appears, and you can install downloaded DroboApps by dragging their tgz archive files into this share. Upon restarting the Drobo FS, the apps are launched. DroboApps are controlled by pointing your web browser to the IP address of the Drobo FS.

My only concern about DroboApps is that they should be much easier to implement and control. One thing I see that LaCie did "right" with the Network Space 2 is to make it drop-dead simple to implement the most popular apps; iTunes-compatible media sharing, Bit Torrent and FTP capabilities, etc... If I could make one suggestion to Data Robotics, it would be to pre-install the top five or so DroboApps on the device, along with simple instructions on how to administer those apps. Providing control through the Drobo Dashboard software would make control even more simple.

The Drobo FS, like most network-attached devices, is limited by the speed of the network that it is attached to. Data Robotics notes that if you have a network capable of handling Jumbo Frames, you can tweak the MTU size up to 9000 to give the Drobo FS a performance boost.

The bottom line on the Drobo FS is that it is truly the next generation of the existing "Drobo plus DroboShare" combination. It provides Data Robotics' expandable BeyondRAID technology in a network-attached version that is well within the financial reach of prosumers or businesses. If you're looking for a way to add shared, expandable RAID storage to a home or office network, consider the Drobo FS.

One final comment: just about every time that we run a post about any of Data Robotics storage products, we get a flurry of comments both pro and con about the devices. During the time that I have tested the devices or used them at a number of client offices, I have never had any issues with Drobo products. Your mileage may vary, and you're welcome to post your opinion in the comments section. Please keep those comments intelligent and civil.

Pricing on the Drobo FS starts at US$699 for a bare (no drives installed) device, and there's currently a Drobo FS configured with five 2.0 TB drives installed for $1,499. Be sure to check out the following gallery for some photos of the Drobo FS, as well as screenshots of the Drobo Dashboard software used to control the device.