Drobo Hard Drive Back Up for Photographers

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The Drobo is labeled as "Fully Automated SATA Robotic Storage Array," which sounds a little intimidating, like something that will taunt the cat when you're not around. But actually, it's a fairly clever device about the size of a toaster that you can insert up to four SATA hard drives. After doing so, Drobo takes it from there. It stores any data that you write to it, automatically backs it up, and constantly monitors the situation making necessary adjustments and repairs while you're out doing what you should be doing, taking pictures.

As a passionate digital photographer, I had pledged to figure out my storage solution in 2008. Prior to the Drobo, I would purchase a standalone 500 GB hard drive, use it until it was full, catalog it, put it on the shelve next to the other drives, and start all over again. I was storing big Raw files, music, movies, and all my other data. I decided that I wanted to separate my photography data from the rest of my stuff. And if I could find a good photo storage solution, that it would take pressure off the rest of my backup needs. After asking around and reading some research online, I decided to try the Drobo to store my photos.

I purchased the Drobo for about $465 and two 750 GB SATA drives for $165 each, making for an investment of just under $800 -- fairly sizable for sure. In return I get over a Terabyte of automated, backed-up storage that I can expand with additional drives whenever I want.

Preparing the Drobo for Network Sharing

My thought was to put the Drobo on my AirPort Extreme network that also handles my Internet and printing. I had saved one open port on the USB hub for network storage, and that's where the Drobo was going. Setup, as advertised, was easy. I unpacked the Drobo, inserted the two hard drives and connected it directly to my MacBook Pro running Leopard. I did this so I could use the Drobo Dashboard to initialize the hard drives. Unfortunately, Dashboard doesn't recognize the Drobo on an 802.11 network, so you have to perform the initial set up with the Drobo directly connected to a computer. You only have to do this once. When you add SATA drives in the future, Drobo automatically prepares them for you.

After initial set up using Drobo's Mac formatting for the drives, I connected the robot to my network and accessed it via the "Shared" tab in the sidebar of any open Finder window in Leopard. You'll see the name of your network, and when you click on it, it will reveal the Drobo. At this point you can copy files just like you would with any connected hard drive. Drobo manages the information once it has it in its procession, and presumably you can go back to work with the peace of mind that your pictures are safe. And so far, this seems true.

Read/Write Speed on a Network

I work with three different laptops. What makes this configuration so nice is that I can back up files and print from any of my machines without ever connecting a wire. I can also grab files from the Drobo and copy to any machine. But there is a price for this convenience, and it is read/write speed. For my first test, I copied and Aperture archive that was 14 GBs. It took 90 minutes to complete the transfer over the wireless network. I did a little more research and found an article on AppleInsider titled, Exploring Time Capsule: theoretical speed vs practical throughput. There is a table near the bottom of the article that compares throughput speed with different connections: direct USB, Ethernet networking, and wireless networking. The chart shows a big difference between direct USB connection (30 MB/sec) and 802.11g connection (3 MB/sec). So, there's a major bump in speed when connecting the Drobo directly to a computer compared to putting it on a wireless network. My one hope was that a 802.11n network has a 9 MB/sec throughput, which isn't bad. So, I revisited my network setup to make sure I was taking full advantage of the AirPort Extreme's 802.11n capabilities.

I opened the AirPort Utility (Applications > Utilities > AirPort Utility), clicked on the Wireless tab, and selected "802.11n only (5 Ghz)" from the Radio Mode. (Previously, I had been using 802.11n (802.11b/g compatible.) I then ran my 14 GB test again. This time the Aperture archive transferred in, well, 90 minutes. So, apparently I was getting as much out of my network as it had to offer. Further messing around with settings didn't make any noticeable improvements. Well, at least now I know.

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I tried making a few changes to my network, but performance remained the same.

The good news is that file copying can happen in the background. So I just start uploading when I first arrive, and everything is finished by the time I'm ready to pack up and hit the field. If I wanted to spend another $200, I could purchase a DroboShare that lets me use Gigabit Ethernet (40 MB/sec). That should speed things up considerably, and if the current 802.11 network begins to drive me crazy, I might start saving my pennies for the upgrade. (Or do I want another hard drive for that third slot!)

I have a couple of tips too. If you get a "Connection Failed" message when trying to access the Drobo, you probably just have to click the "Connect As" button and enter the network password. That did the trick for me. And if you want your Drobo icon to display on the Desktop, open Finder Preferences and check the "Connected servers" box under the General tab.

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Final Thoughts

Drobo is both Mac and Windows compatible. If you use it on a Mac, I recommend the latest version of Leopard, and make sure you have the current firmware update for AirPort Extreme (7.3.1 at the time of writing). This allows you to use the Drobo with Time Machine, which is fairly nifty. The Drobo web site contains a wealth of information, and is worth investigating if you have a particular strategy in mind.

As for me, time will tell. Right now, I'm still fine-tuning my backup gameplan that includes Drobo for much of the heavy lifting. I don't plan on using it for any realtime work, such as Aperture or Lightroom referenced files. The network performance would be too slow for me. But, so far, I do like this solution for archiving my work. Last night I sent a 42 GB job to the Drobo for safe keeping. This morning everything was there safe and sound. If I continue to like the way it performs over the long haul, I'll probably purchase another for offsite storage too. For the time being, I'll continue to use 500 GB drives offsite for redundancy, and count on the Drobo as my primary storage.

What really jumps out at me after this exercise is that there is still no single solution that handles all of my storage and backup needs the way that I want. The Drobo moves the ball forward, and I appreciate that. But I still have a ways to go.

If you've tested the Drobo yourself, please post a comment with your thoughts, and any tips you have for fine-tuning your backup strategy.

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26 Comments

The drobo is nice in theory but it is the slowest thing in our network. Internally it's limited to around 22MB/s give or take a few. It can also get lost forever if you fill it up and someone pulls a drive and puts it back in. It will keep chugging and chugging with no end in site. after a week we made the decision to have drobo put down. But as long as you don't mess with it it works fine. It's annoying that you have to use the drobo dash to see how much space you actually have rather than the OS.

me personally, multiple RAID1 pairs and hard backups right after a shoot and nightly online database backups work much better. I get 100MB/s from a single drive. This setup also makes data recovery a lot more likely when the time comes, and it will come.

Again, Drobo nice in theory but it's not a true backup solution. I've seen an entire array go down. RAIDs and Drobo only protect against one thing, disk failure. They don't protect against controller failure, data corruption, user error, fire, etc.

Thanks for sharing your experience Dominic. I found it very interesting and helpful. With your background, I can see why you prefer RAID. I think, however, one reason why Drobo appeals to some photographers is its ease of setup and maintenance. It feels less intimating than RAID. Sounds like there are some tradeoffs for that convenience. But in technology, that's usually the case, isn't it?

Drobo has a Firewire 800 unit available that's twice as fast. I want to know what happens when one of the drives in the Drobo dies. Do you loose data?

I just set up a FW800 Drobo last week with two 500GB and two 160GB drives (they were on sale, and I wanted to try all four bays to make sure they all worked). I haven't quite decided yet how to use Drobo. I thought I might make it my primary storage for media files (continuing to perform backups to my 700GB external Seagate drive), but I don't like the spin-up lag time that occurs when I access it after not using it for a while or when first logging in. (This lag time may be due to my setup, as I'm running Ubuntu and have Drobo directly attached via FW800 and formatted in ext3 using directions obtained from the Drobo forums.)

We shall see. Whatever else, it sure looks cool sitting on my desk.

Scott -
When a disk in drobo fails you do not loose your data. Drobo maintains its own data scheme so that you simple pull the bad drive out, and replace it with a good drive. You can continue to access your data while the new drive (automatically) rebuilds.

Dominic-
You make a couple of good observations but miss the largest one. Drobo probably isn't a business solution. And, by your comment that it is the slowest thing on your network, I am assuming that you are talking about business.

In my case, I was flushing bundles of cash because I have a small photo business and frankly can't afford a formal RAID solution. Further, individual drives were failing at an alarming rate. I was averaging a new purchase every year -and when you are talking 1+ TB drives that simple becomes unsustainable.

Drobo is a SOHO or personal solution to mass storage needs at a prosumer level. Yes it has a $500 box price, but it does not require a RAID card so there is no controller failure involved. Unless you are counting your USB/FW port and yes nothing can protect against that.

Yes it doesn't protect against data failure, or a SEU issue, but then neither does RAID. You also don't have to worry about what level of RAID you use. You state that you are using RAID-1 so you are simply mirroring your data. From a home user perspective, that simply gets too expensive AND doesn't provide you the hotswap capability that say RAID 5 with proper hardware configuration (or a Drobo) provides.

You cannot use the OS to determine how much space you have? That is strange, I don't have the Droob Dashboard on my desktop and I can see (using my OS) exactly how much space I have. Further, knowing how much capacity it has, I can look at the face panel of the drobo and estimate how much space I have by reviewing the LEDs.

You mention online database backups. Are you talking services like Photoshelter? Because I have tens of thousands of images in my current digital collection - and I continue to transfer from film to digital - and having terrabytes of data stored by an online service is something I simply cannot afford.

Finally, nothing can protect against everything. I have numerous archive solutions including tape, rotating disks, and CD/DVD. All current solutions are, at best, problematic. I have never successfully restored from tape - and I have been in the IT industry since the 80s. Every time you absolutely needed it, one tape in a large archive was bad. Now we are being told what many of us feared - DVDs and CDROMs don't last. Surprise!

Drobo is just the latest thing, an attempt to bridge the home user need for redundant storage in an ever growing and ever expanding digital world. And it does that well.

If you are a business, RAID (even better NetApp) is still your best approach. If you are a heavy home user that can afford a couple thousand, RAID may be your solution. If you are a prosumer, and have storage requirements of a TB or so, and can save up for a Drobo - then definitely do it. I have had mine for a year now without a single problem. It works as advertised. The weak link is still the drives, but now I am purchasing inexpensive internal SATAs instead of expensive external 1.5 FWs and I haven't lost any data since installing the Drobo. Oh, and I am using it as my primary data source.

I purchased my USB 2.0 Drobo in June 2008. It is connected to my dual 2.5 ghz G5 MAC running Leopard. I use the Drobo with Time Machine. Last week I noticed my MAC became real slow. Activity Monitor showed 100% utilization on both processors continuously! It turned out it was not the Drobo nor Time machine but a process called syslogd. I found the problem has been documented by apple and in the process of making some changes with terminal ended up with an unbootable mac. Trusting the Drobo, I did a new leopard install, followed by a Time machine restore. Took 8 hours to restore my 350Gs of data, but everything came up and did not loose a single file.

One issue, after my main 500G drive was restored, the Drobo initiated a new full backup, nearly doubling my backup storage. Thus I decided to clean my drobo with Drobo Dashboard, and tonight am having Time Machine do a new backup on the cleaned Drobo.

But now I am a little worried about using Aperture's library and it backing up new versions every time. May end not using the library and managing my picture folders manually!

This ia a very interesting thread and the blog I thought was very useful. Since everyone is talking about performance I thought I would add some real life experience with the Drobo I just purchased recently.

I just purchased the latest Drobo with FW800, have a newer iMac 2.8Ghz Extreme, and have the latest Airport Extreme with Gbit. I have tried two scenarios for copying data and both seem reasonably good. I copied a 1GB movie file over to Drobo and below is the results; both were very successful.

1) Drobo connected to iMac with Firewire 800. 30 seconds writing to Drobo. 20 seconds copying from Drobo.

2) Drobo connected to Airport Extreme over LAN (wired) with Gbit ethernet (both iMac and Airport extreme have Gbit). 80 seconds writing to Drobo, 65 seconds copying from Drobo.

I hesitate to run a test using wireless even though I can support 802.11 N. The reason is that wireless can vary so much because distance, interference, etc. can impact the results, but regardless it will be the slowest solution.

So the results I have seen are very reasonable, and for the price I think Drobo is a great value because I can easily expand as drives get bigger unless the SATA standard changes. BTW, I have 4 x 1TB WD Green drives as my storage, so keep that in mind. All drives are only 5400RPM. The drives require less power and are low heat and very quite. With the exception of the Drobo fan running once in a while things are nearly as silent as my iMac.

I just ordered Drobo 2ndGen with 4 1TB Seagate drives.

Now I read that when you replace a drive, all the existing data would be erased by Drobo.

Thus I have a question: How do you read old data from a prviously filled drive (that has been replaced by a new one)?

Thanks,
Mary

You should also consider some of the online backup services that are now available as a cheap secondary alternative in the event that your onsite storage fails,or at least look at a second copy,storage has now gotten so cheap per TB.

I am finally (not too much sweat) operational with my DROBO. I originally put in a 2TB drive thinking it would give me 2TB diskspace not backed up (but just to start). I was surprised it only offered me 1TB.

Then I ordered another 2TB thinking I'd have a total space available of 2TB but fully protected. Only 1TB arrived in the mail. What the heck.. I connected it anyway. My drobo is *still* only offering me 1TB (but now it's backed up... so, progress!).

I assume that if I add another 2TB drive, my total diskspace (despite having 5TB total) will be 2TB instead of 1 (fingers crossed) and maybe a little more?

My DROBO is gloriously silent except when the fan kicks in occasionally... and it's kinda reassuring to hear the clicks whirring and whatelse.

Despite that it has firewire800 I CAN'T use that because I'm on an older Mac Mini. I don't think that I'll be connecting it to my time-capsule.

For the moment, my DROBO experience is a happy one (even though... with 3TB in the box I only have 1TB available for use). And the box is beautiful with nice blue diodes.

I don't know what I'm going to do for an offsite backup. I would *LOVE* if I could dedicate the 4th drive bay for an 'offsite backup drive preparation'. Then I could just insert internals into that according to DROBOdash and offsite those internals when DROBO tells me too. Maybe this is in our future? For the moment I need a non-drobo solution to handle my off-sites.

Enjoy!
Buy a DROBO!

Shawn
DrKdev (on twitter).

I currently use my drobo for photos using 4 1TB drives, and now I am pretty much maxed out unless I start to replace drives with 2TB drives or larger. I called Drobo support and they said that I could pull out all the drives (following all the proper procedures) and replace all the drives with brand new drives (i.e. 4 new 1TB drives). They SAID that if I wanted to access the data on the old drives, that I would have to reinsert all 4 of the old drives (in no specific order), that it wouldn't perform any of the relayout process I wouldn't loose any data and I would be able to access the data. Has anyone tried this? My concern is pulling out all the drives and then reinserting them. My nightmare is that it will not work as they say and I will loose data. I've got 2 years of photos on the drives and at this point I do have other forms of backup, but if this solution works, it's not a bad one. Right now I'm at a point where I have no more space available and I can't afford to start using 2TB drives then 2.5, 3.0 and so on, that would just be never ending. Anyway, I hope this makes sense and any info you can offer would be appreciated.

Thank you

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great post man thank you

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Wow, great article. I bookmarked this and sent it to my brother, think he'll find this interesting.

Has anyone explored DROBO vs the 4 Internal Bays in the Mac Pro? I a trying to see the logic in Buyibg the DROBO vs filling all four bays in my mac tower with 1TB Drives

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I've been using a Drobo (FW800) for over a year. While I have had some problems with the transfer speed being too slow, I think most of those have been Windows driver issues and not necessarily the Drobo itself. It has never lost data. I did have a problem once with the NTFS getting corrupted and causing the Drobo to failed to boot, but connecting it via USB and running a check disk resolved the problem and I lost no data. I have replaced (upgraded) one of the drives and am about to replace a second one. I did have to completely reformat the unit when I moved from XP to Windows 7 to get the full benefit of a drive larger than 2Tb (as I upgrade). My 2Tb Drobo is my primary on-site backup solution and I use Jungle Disk (with Amazon S3) as my off-site backup solution. It's a perfect match (so far).

As a online storage service is much cheaper than a external hdd i must remain with online storage and i will tell you why .
Internet is more accessible everywhere wireless and instead of taking too many things with me i just take my laptop and the rest comes from it self.
I am using http://www.dmailer.com/dmailer-backup.html is a free software that has if you want the possibility to offer you online storage services up to 3gb as a free members and more larger packs for good prices .
Their software is easy to use and i didn't had any problems and they also have good servers that allows high internet speed download , so i can download my backup to restore it very fast.

Has anyone tried this? My concern is pulling out all the drives and then reinserting them. My nightmare is that it will not work as they say and I will loose data. I've got 2 years of photos on the drives and at this point I do have other forms of backup, but if this solution works, it's not a bad one. Right now I'm at a point where I have no more space available and I can't afford to start using 2TB drives then 2.5, 3.0 and so on, that would just be never ending. http://www.harddrivesrecovery.net

Hello
Can you tell me if this product will also sync up woth some of the online backup services.
We use our own Online Backup Service it would be great if we would sync this up so we could backup both online and offsite as well.
I would even consider if it was a manual process.
Looks like a cheap solution for home use.

Online storage would be wonderful if all had unlimited upload access. Unfortunately we don’t and it is costly to get. My issue is wireless speed. My home is not wired and I do not want it to be wired. 11.n is capable but does lose speed through walls etc. This issue isn’t about Drobo but about transfer speeds of wireless and accessibility over networks in general. Nothing is perfect and I do not want to store pics of my ass online. Tyou.

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