Hardware Review: Data Robotics DroboPro

Posted on by Larry

[ This article was first published in the October, 2009, issue of
Larry’s Final Cut Pro Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]


Executive Summary: This is a very impressive unit that deserves a look from any video editor that needs fast, secure, expandable storage.

About a year ago, Mark Fuccio, Senior Director of Products & Markets at Data Robotics, sent me a Drobo (version 2) to review. [You can read my original review here.]

Drobo, for those of you that haven’t heard of it, has an innovative hard disk system that combines RAID protection with expandability.

Normally, a RAID is fixed in size. If you try to add new disks, you need to erase all your data on the RAID, change the configuration, then copy all your data back. This is a major pain. However, once a RAID is configured, assuming you have a RAID 1, 3, 5 or 6, your data is safe in the event one of your hard disks dies.

NOTE: RAID 0 provides high-speed storage, but no data redundancy. If you lose a drive in a RAID 0 enclosure, you’ve lost all your data.

The opposite of a RAID is a single hard drive. These are easy to expand by simply buying a new hard drive and adding it to your system. However, if one of your stand-alone hard drives dies, you’ve lost all the data on that drive.

As we quickly move from tape-based to tapeless video formats, the need for secure, high-performance data storage is becoming increasingly critical.

Drobo changed this equation with a system that provides expandable, yet secure, data storage. You can increase the size of your storage by simply adding more drives, or replacing existing drives with those containing more storage; for example, replacing a 250 GB drive with a 1.0 TB drive. Unlike a typical RAID, with Drobo you don’t need to worry about reconfiguring your system. Drobo automatically rebuilds any missing data on to the new drive.

This was very cool!

However, the older Drobo had two significant failings for video editing: it was very slow and it was noisy.

In April this year, Data Robotics released the DroboPro to address these concerns. And, again, Mark asked if I wanted to take a closer look at the unit. Since I love looking at storage, I was delighted. Shortly thereafter, two boxes containing a new DroboPro and five hard disks (which are sold separately) ranging in size from 250 GB to 1.0 TB, arrived.

NOTE: Drobo shipped me Western Digital drives. However, any 3.5″ eSATA drive from any manufacturer can be used. You can mix and match drive sizes and manufacturers with no problems.

For the record, I did my testing on a MacPro 2.93 GHz 4-core, 8 GB RAM, with OS X 10.5.8.

WHAT’S DIFFERENT WITH DROBOPRO

The DroboPro uses a different connection protocol – iSCSI – which attaches via Ethernet. This provides significantly faster speeds. As a MacBook Pro owner, I thought that since Drobo requires an Ethernet port, that would rule out my laptop when my laptop is attached to the network, but there is a VERY cool workaround that I’ll get to in a bit.

The DroboPro replaced their single noisy fan, with a pair of slower speed fans, which drops the noise to easily half of the original Drobo. While still noisier than my MacPro, this decrease in noise is very welcome. (In fact, they’ve even made it possible to locate the unit in a different room!)

They also added a new level of data protection that keeps your data safe even if you lose two hard drives at the same time. Even better you can switch into, or out of, this protection mode at any time without losing any data.

GETTING SETUP

Drobo has taken a page from Apple’s playbook on making your introduction and setup of a system a non-threatening affair. The DroboPro is nestled inside a cloth bag, with very friendly instructions. If a puppy could be a hard disk, it would look like a Drobo.

Unlike some other RAIDs, you don’t need to mount your hard disks on sleds prior to installing them into the RAID. Instead you simply remove the magnetic front cover, and slip each hard disk into a drive slot.

No screws, nothing tricky. Just follow the pictures in the manual and in less than a minute, all your drives are installed. Due to the construction of the unit, it is impossible to install a drive incorrectly.

I installed four 1.0 TB drives and one 250 GB drive for a total of 4.25 TB in storage.

NOTE: Installation is easy, but follow standard anti-static rules. Touch something metal to ground yourself. Avoid excessive movement that could build static electricity. A grounding strap isn’t necessary, but common sense is. These are the drives that will store your very precious data. Treat them carefully.

Another nice touch is that you can put the unit in “Safe Shutdown” mode by unmounting it from your desktop, then turning the power switch off. In earlier versions, you needed to do this using the Drobo Dashboard (the managment system for all Drobos) .

CONNECTING THE UNIT

The DroboPro supports three connection protocols:

* USB (this redefines the word “slow.”)
* FireWire 800 (cable supplied)
* iSCSI (using an Ethernet cable, also supplied)

Unlike other hard disks, the power supply is built into the DroboPro – no wall wart, no transformers, just a power cord that plugs directly into the wall. However, Drobo recommends plugging your unit into a surge protector for safety and I agree with that. Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS) are a really good idea as well.

Another nice touch is that the power switch is a rocker switch that requires pressing for a second or so to turn on, or off, power. G-Technology has done something similar where you need to press and hold the power switch for several seconds to turn the unit on. This guards against accidental power loss.

Once the unit is turned on, it takes 1-2 minutes to go thru a self-test and connect with the computer. Most of the time, this delay is not a problem. However, during my testing as I was constantly powering the system on and off, I had to keep reminding myself to be patient.

The current version of the Drobo Dashboard (v. 1.5.1) supports both older and newer Drobos. In fact, all connected units show up in one Dashboard. This makes management of multiple units simple.

NOTE: Drobo tells me, but I didn’t test, that you can move the hard disks from your older Drobo into the new unit with no problems, and keeping your data intact. This makes converting simple – plus, it saves money in that you don’t need to buy new hard disks.

CONFIGURING THE UNIT

When you first connect the unit and turn it on, the Macintosh OS asks if you want to format the drive. This is a BAD idea – be sure to say “No” (by clicking the Ignore button).

Instead, let the Drobo Dashboard format the drive.

Unless you REALLY need PC connectivity, format your drive as HFS+. This provides much larger file size support, better Mac integration, and improved performance. FAT32 should only be used if you need to attach this to a Windows system.

There are two different storage sizes associated with Drobo:

* The maximum volume size you plan to grow the Drobo to support.
* The size of your current storage, based on the hard disks you installed.

In this dialog, you are asked to specify what size you ultimately would like to grow this volume. Since I selected 8 TB, this means that at some point – not necessarily now – I expect to have 8 TB of drives installed in the unit. This is the size Drobo will configure itself to support. Any storage added beyond this will create a second volume (icon) on your desktop.

The next step is to give your drive a name. (I decided on “DroboPro” — this isn’t particularly creative, but at least I knew which drive it referred to.)

Once you’ve made those settings, the drive goes off and formats itself. This took several minutes, but FAR less than the 18-24 hours that an XServe RAID used to take.

When formatting is complete, the drive is ready to use.

The Drobo Dashboard provides continuously updated reports on the status of your unit.

After formatting is done, your Mac asks if you want to use the Drobo for Time Machine backup. Since I want to use this for active video editing, rather than backup, I said no. If you want this unit solely to backup your data on other drives, say yes.

This chart, available by twirling down the “How is my storage being used?” triangle, shows how my disks are allocated. Note that not all disks are the same size.

Or, another way to look at your system is in the Advanced Settings > Data window.

PROTECTING YOUR DATA

As we have discussed in the past, RAIDS use different levels to protect your data:

* RAID 0 – Fast, no data protection
* RAID 1 – Slow, if you lose one drive, your data is safe
* RAID 3 or 5 – Really fast, if you lose one drive, your data is safe
* RAID 6 – Fast, if you lose two drives at the same time, your data is safe

RAID 0 is at the low end of the cost scale. RAID 6 is heading toward the high end.

While Drobo is not a RAID (in fact, they call their technology “BeyondRAID”), it does offer data security. In its default mode, if you lose one drive, your data is safe. Using the Dashboard, you can configure it to protect your data in the event you lose two drives.

Go to Advanced Settings > Tools > Settings to change the configuration. When I changed this, it took Drobo 15 minutes to reconfigure itself. After that, I can switch between modes with only a short period of time (about a minute) for reconfiguration.

There are two trade-offs for the extra security:

The amount of additional storage space needed for the dual drive security varies depending upon the number of drives you have installed. It ranges from 50% for two drive systems, to 13% for 8-drive units.

For instance, in my unit:

For me, I would probably stay with the default setting of supporting data integrity with one drive failure in order to get the best performance. Your personal level of paranoia may require a different conclusion.

TESTING SYSTEM SPEED

This is where the rubber meets the road – and believe me, this is truly squiggle territory.

Four IMPORTANT rules to consider:

In other words, you can make hard drive test speed numbers be whatever you want.

So, here’s what I did:

Changing ANY of these settings changes the results; so always be a bit skeptical of hard disk speed numbers that are too precise.

To try to make sense of the numbers, I set the speed of the Drobo (v2) equal to 1.00. Then, I measured the difference in speed of various different hard disks.

In single-disk protection mode, the DroboPro was almost 2.5 times faster in reads and 3.0 times faster in writes. These are significant differences in speed.

As another example, I copied 7 GB of files from an internal hard drive to the Drobo and measured the results in Activity Monitor. The DroboPro hit speeds in excess of 80 MB/second.

I then transferred 50 GB of files from a FireWire 800 drive to the DroboPro and transfer speeds over the course of copying the files were slightly better than 60 MB/second.

In single-disk data protection mode, the DroboPro had data speeds fast enough to support all common flavors of HD, support at least four simultaneous data streams for multi-clip work, and still protect your data in the event of a drive failure.

This is just excellent.

WORKING WITH SYSTEMS WITH ONLY ONE ETHERNET PORT

Using iSCSI over Ethernet allows for potentially faster speeds than FireWire will support. However, if you only have one Ethernet port, and need access to a wired internet, this is a problem.

However, there is a very cool work-around — you can connect the DroboPro to your network data switch. Using a switch, you can access both the Internet and your DroboPro from a single cable.

This has two benefits:

This is NOT network-connected storage. You can only connect the DroboPro to one computer at a time. However, I’m currently connected to the unit via my network switch and the Drobo is located in another room.

I tested the data rates of transferring via a switch. If you use a 10/100 Ethernet switch, you’ll only get about 11 MB/second – too slow for video. If you use a Gigabit switch, I was getting data transfer rates around 80 MB/second.

In order for this to work, however, you’ll need to give the unit a static IP address. The Drobo website explains how, however, it doesn’t warn you that the IP address needs to be in the same subnet as the rest of your gear. The default IP address of the unit won’t work.

To determine your subnet address, go to System Preferences > Network and note the IP address of your system. Enter the same first three sets of numbers; for example, 192.168.123. — then enter a unique number for the last set of numbers.

I’m currently connecting to the DroboPro with the unit placed in another room, connected through my network switch, and doing real-time video editing using P2 media. The ability to connect to the unit thru my standard Ethernet cabling, yet providing speeds that support video editing, is very, very impressive.

CONCLUSION

I am very impressed. Drobo has done an excellent job listening to the needs of video editors. If data protection combined with performance are important to you, you need to look closely at this unit.

The DroboPro retails for $1,499 with no drives. Data Robotics has bundles with hard drives that range in price from $1,999 for 4 TB of storage to $3,499 for 16 TB of storage.

Two things I wish for the future, one small and one big:

Other than that, the DroboPro is very cool.


UPDATE – FEB, 2009

NOTE: Drobo was listening. In February, the announced the Drobo Elite, which does allow multiple computers to share storage on one device, attached to the network. I’ll have a review of this unit in an upcoming newsletter.


UPDATE – Oct. 15, 2009

Chi-Ho Lee took my numbers to task:

You wrote a nice review of the Drobo Pro as a physical unit but I’m confused by your refusal to list real read/write speeds of the unit. In fact, you took great pains to justify why you don’t list hard speed numbers. Your speed chart made absolutely no sense. Other drive reviews lists the read/write speed at 0% capacity and then at 90% capacity. Then the readers can judge for themselves what are the relative real world speeds.

 

I agree with you that one can fudge the numbers a bit on these speed tests but no reputable manufacturers’ speeds are off more than 10% of their listed speeds. After reading your well written, detailed review of the DroboPro, I have no idea whether it’s capable of capturing uncompressed 1080i 10bit, 8bit, ProRes or any other codec.

 

You said you ran the AJA speed test, please post the AJA speed results instead of converting it into this nebulous non-nonsensical chart.

 

Your newsletters are great in general but this review is missing the most important piece of information and hence my frustration.

Larry replies: These are excellent comments.

The only reason I did not list the speeds was that as the file sizes changed from 128 MB to 1 GB, the disk speeds changed dramatically. Since there is no way in Final Cut to adjust the size of the files being transferred, I realized that simply publishing the speeds would be a meaningless exercise.

However, I’m happy to go back and add a table indicating the speed settings that I got in my tests. Here it is.

Drobo Speed Test Table
System Write Speed Read Speed
Drobo (v2)
25 MB/s
33 MB/s
External USB (2)
19.8 MB/s
20.5 MB/s
DroboPro (Dual-disk protection mode)
53 MB/s
48 MB/s
External FireWire 800 single drive
64 MB/s
83 MB/s
DroboPro (Single-disk protection mode)
78 MB/s
81.4 MB/s
Internal MacPro hard disk
102 MB/s
98 MB/s

NOTES

 


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