[ This article was first published in the April, 2010, issue of
Larry’s Final Cut Pro Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]
Note: For my policy on reviews and disclosure, please read this article.
As you read earlier in this issue, Data Robotics was one of our sponsors for our NAB Show coverage this year. I’ve been a fan of their products for a while, and decided that the show this year gave us a great opportunity to put one of their latest products to the test – the Drobo Elite.
So, I asked Data Robotics to loan us a unit to review and use during the NAB Show. The short answer is that the unit performed flawlessly, but getting it setup was not as easy as I expected.
Data Robotics makes a family of products under the brand name of Drobo. This is the fourth of their products I’ve reviewed.
The Drobo Elite is the high-end of the Drobo product line. Designed for small to medium businesses that need flexible, RAID-protected storage across multiple servers or computers.
Following the lead of the Drobo Pro, the Drobo Elite attaches to your network via iSCSI. This protocol allows you to connect the Elite to a network switch, which allows the device to be accessed over the network, rather than connect directly to a computer.
NOTE: I have become a fan of iSCSI. While the speed is limited to the speed of your network, if you are running your data through a 1 gigabit switch, you should expect data rates greater than 80 MB/second. (In an ideal environment, the maximum data rate is 128 MB/second, but latency in the switch and contention across the network prevents speeds in excess of 100 MB/second.)
The even bigger benefit to iSCSI is that your data comes in via your Ethernet port – along with Internet connectivity – they easily share the same wire. This means that I no longer have to worry about what ports are on my laptop or getting an interface card for a G-5 or MacPro. As Apple continues removing ports, the ability to be sure that you can access your data via the one port they WON’T remove – the Ethernet port – provides great peace of mind.
All Drobo’s are known for their expandability and the ability to protect your data if one hard drive dies (Drobo calls this “Beyond-RAID,” because traditional RAIDS do not allow you to swap out a smaller hard drive for a larger one without first having to remove all your data to separate storage, then reformat the RAID and replace your data when the swap is complete.)
Where the Drobo Elite excels is the ability to create multiple “Smart Volumes” in one RAID. These scalable volumes allow different computers or servers to attach to different volumes on the same unit. This allows you to share a single storage unit between multiple devices.
Part of the expandability the Drobo Elite provides is the ability to mix-and-match hard disks. The hard disks don’t have to match in size, speed, or manufacturer. As one fills up, you can replace it with a larger one. Cool.
And, since the Drobo allows you to insert up to eight hard disks, this provides up to 16 TB of storage in one unit, depending upon the size of the hard disks you use.
For traditional file sharing, you still need to attach the Elite to a standard file server (unlike the new Drobo FS, which directly attaches to the network and acts as it’s own server).
However, let’s say you have three servers. You can create three partitions (Smart Volumes) on the Elite, and assign a partition to each server. It acts like direct-attached storage, without actually having the unit attached to your computer.
Even better, using Drobo Dashboard, you can unmount a volume on the Elite from one computer, and quickly mount it to a computer in the next room, allowing you to quickly migrate projects from one computer to the other, without changing any connections to the drive, or moving the drive itself.
To make file transfers even faster, the Drobo Elite comes with two Ethernet ports, allowing you to use Jumbo Frames on your Ethernet network. While I didn’t test this, as not all computers support Jumbo Frames, the increase in speed is significant.
You can also password protect the drive so that the settings can’t be modified. While I didn’t use this, I can see why it would be helpful in larger shops to prevent over enthusiastic editors from mucking up the system.
I like the fact that the on/off switch is a rocker switch that you can’t turn off by mistake. To turn the unit off, you need to FIRMLY press and hold the rocker switch for several seconds. I like this. What I would like even more is if Data Robotics would figure out a way to keep the power cord from accidentally disconnecting from the unit.
Data Robotics continues to find ways to make their units quieter. If you are accustomed to the racket a normal RAID makes, you’ll be delighted with this. If, on the other hand, you expect it to be really quiet, you’ll be disappointed. My recommendation is that, since both the Drobo and your computer attach to the network via Ethernet, you don’t need to have the Drobo in the same room as your computer. Put it somewhere where you won’t hear it — like near your servers.
And, something very important to a geek, it has some very cool flashing lights – green, blue, yellow, and red. Even better, the lights let you read the status of the unit at a distance.
THE GOOD NEWS – PERFORMANCE
I installed five hard drives, of varying sizes, into the Elite for a total of about 4.5TB of protected storage.
As is the case with all Drobos, you manage the system using Drobo Dashboard. However, unlike other Drobo’s, I divided this storage into two Smart Volumes. The Drobo Elite volume I attached to a server, and the Backup volume I directly connected to my laptop. This gave me two separate volumes, only one of which was accessible over the network, so that in the event someone tried to trash a file, they would not be able to trash, or even see, the safety backups we had created.
The Drobo Elite has two connections on the back – USB, which is required for setup, but way too slow for any use in production, and iSCSI.
When attached via a server, the speed of the unit depends upon the speed of the server. However, during my tests using a Mac Mini (not the fastest server in the world), I was regularly getting more than 50 MB/second from the drive.
When attached directly to a computer, though, my speeds were comparable to the Drobo Pro – 85 MB/second for both reads and writes. This is plenty fast enough for editing most video formats, including multi-cam work.
Copying files from the Drobo to a local hard drive averaged about 86 MB/second. The screen shot above shows the speed the data came in from the network (because the drive attaches via the Ethernet cable). Writing to the internal hard drive of my MacPro was equally fast. It copied 10 GB of data in little over a minute.
Once the system was setup, access was as easy as accessing any other hard disk. But, getting it setup was a real challenge.
THE BAD NEWS – SETUP REQUIRES PAYING ATTENTION!
Data Robotics sent me the unit about a week before I needed it for NAB, so I had time to get it setup and tested.
Here’s the first thing I learned: YOU MUST READ THE MANUAL before you try to set this up. I managed to do this completely wrong and cost myself several days of hair-pulling.
I tried installing this to a headless server using Apple’s Remote Access – bad idea. The Drobo Elite needs to be directly connected to the computer during setup via USB. Don’t attach it to your network switch until installation is complete. Don’t try to access it remotely until setup is complete. Connecting the Drobo to your network before installation is complete will take down your network. I speak from personal experience here.
NOTE: If all the lights on the front of the unit are red, it means that the Drobo can not see your computer. To resolve this, open the manual. Read the instructions…
So, to install the unit:
1. Connect the Drobo Elite to computer with a monitor using USB. (Don’t try to install this remotely.)
2. Download the latest version of Drobo Dashboard and install it, plus any necessary firmware upgrades to your unit.
3. Since this will be a network device, you need to assign it an IP address compatible with other devices on your network. You do this in Drobo Dashboard.
4. After that, follow the directions. (Did I mention you need to read the manual? Well, you do.)
A FEW OF WARNINGS
Hard drives from other Drobo units are NOT compatible with the Drobo Elite. Start with fresh drives.
The Drobo Elite automatically creates an Unformatted volume upon startup – this needs to be either formatted or deleted before the unit is ready for use.
There is no way to get the Drobo Elite to auto-mount to a server in the event of a power failure. This means that you will need to access your server to reconnect the drive.
Don’t use the Drobo Dashboard to eject and shutdown the unit. A much better way is to Eject the drive from your desktop, then, after it has dismounted, press and hold the power switch. This is a safer way to remove the drive.
The Drobo Elite deserves its ranking atop the Drobo family. However, it is not for everyone. If you need a fast drive, with the expandability that Drobo is famous for, and want to connect to the drive via your network port, get the Drobo Pro. For many smaller shops, this will be the best choice. The speed difference between the two units is negligible. For me, and the editing work we do around here, the Drobo Pro meets our needs the best.
If you need a fast, expandable drive that fully protects your data with the ability to move it between edit bays, or provide protected storage to multiple servers, or take advantage of automatically expandable Smart Volumes, the Drobo Elite should be on your short list of units to review.
The Drobo Elite worked flawlessly for us during NAB. We connected it to the server, turned it on, and seven days later turned it off. In the meantime, we were playing files directly to air from the Drobo via the server. 16 users all hitting it at once. Never dropped a beat. Fast, secure, and, best of all for a hard drive, invisible.
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