[ This article was first published in the October, 2008, issue of
Larry’s Final Cut Pro Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]
Storage, as you know, is essential to video editing. Even better is expandable storage. And the ideal is expandable, flexible storage. And with that, cue the music, enter Drobo.
Drobo is a product of Data Robotics. Recently, Mark Fuccio, Senior Director of Products and Markets, asked me if I’d like to review a unit. Since I love reviewing new toys, I immediately said yes and shortly thereafter, a Drobo appeared on my doorstep.
It arrived in two boxes – each about a cubic foot in size. The first box held the Drobo and the second box held the drives. Unpacking was a breeze – I especially like the fact that the Drobo came wrapped in a cloth bag, rather than plastic. I also liked the overall humor and friendliness in the packaging and instructions.
There are two cables that need to connect to the back of the unit – a power cable and a FireWire 800 cable. The cables are a bit tricky to put in, and I’d like a cable lock to help prevent the power cable from detaching, but hooking this up is not difficult.
NOTE: By the way, if terms like RAID 0 or RAID 1 confuse you, read this short explanation of how RAIDS are defined.
Drobo is not like any other hard disk or RAID I’ve ever worked with before. It holds up to four standard-issue hard drives, which can be purchased from any vendor, including Drobo. Unlike other RAIDs, however, the drives don’t have to be the same size, same speed, or even from the same vendor. In my test unit, I was given drive sizes of 40, 250, 250, 750, and 1000 GB. (I’ll explain the purpose of the fifth drive in a minute.)
What makes Drobo different from other storage is that it always stores your media in a protected state (like a RAID), but unlike a RAID, you can expand your system by adding more, or larger, hard drives at any time. Drobo reconfigures itself and re-protects your data automatically. This expandability means that you can start with just two medium-sized drives and add more storage as your needs increase. This is something that can not be done without reformatting in a traditional RAID.
Note: Protected means that your data is copied to at least two drives. That way, if one drive fails, your data can be restored from the other drive. Most RAIDs provide protected storage (RAID 0 does not). However, Drobo can provide protected storage without using traditional RAID technology.
For my test, I installed four drives: 40, 250, 250, and 750 GB. There’s no RAID that I know of that allows you to mix drive sizes this way. (It was also a delight not having to use a screw driver or socket wrench to install them. They just slid in and locked.)
This combination of hard drives gave me a total of 496 GB in protected storage. (The “Reserved for expansion” category is storage that I could access if I replaced my small 40 GB drive with something bigger.)
Drobo has gone through two generations so far: the first was a USB-connected device, and the second is a FireWire 800 unit. My unit used a second generation FireWire 800 connection. (Data Robotics also makes the DroboShare, a unit which attaches to your network via Ethernet. While very useful for general file storage and backups, this is too slow for video editing and I decided not to test it.)
Installing from the included CD is simple. I was surprised at how fast it formatted the disks – it was ready to accept data in less than two minutes. During the installation it asked if I wanted to use the Drobo with Time Machine. Since Time Machine only backs up the boot drive, I said no.
Drobo has a software utility, called “Dashboard,” that allows you to manage the unit. After trying unsuccessfully to install Dashboard as a widget, I realized it was a stand-alone application and placed it in my Applications folder. Sigh…
During our conversation, Mark suggested I take a look at how the Drobo could be useful in video editing. So my first test looked at whether it would be fast enough to act as primary storage; that is, as the main media drive, for editing.
And the short answer is: not really.
Any drive is fastest when it is empty. So, with the drives totally empty, I used a current version of Blackmagic Design’s Disk Speed Test to learn that Drobo’s average disk read speed is 22.6 MB per second and its average write speed is 25.3 MB per second. While fast enough for DV and HDV, this is comparable to a slow, single FireWire 400 hard drive.
Note #1: The Drobo web site shows an average write speed of 34 MB/second and an average read speed of up to 55 MB/second. Using this test, I was not able to achieve those speeds.
Note #2: Visible on the front panel are ten lights that indicate how full the drive is. However, hidden under the front cover are activity lights that show when a transfer is taking place. If you want to see how hard your unit is working, simply remove the magnetically attached front cover.
I then decided to see how long a data transfer would take. So I copied 120 GB of data (composed of a series of large R3D HD files) from an internal RAID on my MacPro to the Drobo. It took 1 hour and 27 minutes — roughly equal to a transfer rate of 24 MB per second.
After the drive had all this additional data on it, I decided to replace the 40 GB drive with a 750 GB one (i.e. instant storage expansion) and watch it rebuild my data. So, I yanked out the 40 and slapped in a new 750. Naturally, I didn’t bother to turn off the power — just to see what happens.
It was great. Drobo took the new drive, added it to the system, and reconfigured my storage from 496 GB to 1.3 TB. it took less than 30 seconds for the unit to reconfigure itself with the new drive.
Here’s the Best Part – the Second Test
While the Drobo is too slow to be the main storage for many video formats, such as Digibeta, DVCPRO-HD, ProRes, or anything uncompressed, its expandability and data protection make it ideal for use in acquiring tapeless media. Whether you are shooting P2, SxS, or other tapeless video formats, all of them are MUCH slower than the Drobo. This makes the Drobo very attractive in a production environment – it instantly stores your data in a protected format, is fully expandable, its physical size makes portability easy, and it is more than fast enough to do the job.
As the video world rapidly goes tapeless, the Drobo has a significant role to play in video production and capture. Best of all, its price makes it very attractive.
An empty Drobo, ready to take drives, retails for $499. Since drives can be purchased anywhere, in any size, prices for a fully-loaded Drobo will vary. Buying a 4 TB unit from Data Robotics costs $1,099 (US) retail.
Drobo is a lot of very slick technology packaged in a very attractive box. If low-cost, expandability, and data security are more important to you than speed, you need to look closely at Drobo.
UPDATE – Oct. 11
Mark Spencer asked:
Very nice review on the Drobo, but I do have one question. If the Drobo is too slow for DVCPRO-HD, but it’s fast enough for P2 – there’s a problem, because P2 IS DVCPRO-HD! Or am I misunderstanding you?
Larry replies: Good point.
What I was saying is that for editing (which requires multiple video streams), its too slow. For transferring media from a tapeless source (which is a single video stream with the ability to vary data transfer rates as necesary), its really nice. I mean, for some things you could edit from it. But that’s leading to a weakness. Its strength is that is an expandable system providing protected storage for your media.
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