A data robot is eating the low end

by Robin Harris on Tuesday, 1 December, 2009

Geoff Barrall founded BlueArc at the high end of NAS performance. He then founded Data Robotics, maker of the Drobo low end arrays. A group of bloggers visited DR last month and a lucky few – not including me – took brand new Drobo2 units home.

The idea
For those who haven’t been following Drobo, the idea was to build a simple-as-possible-but-no-simpler storage array for data intensive civilians. Folks like photographers, videographers, musicians, scientists and designers who munge a lot of data.

Drobo users can put any size drive in the box and the capacity will be added automagically. The usable capacity for protected data is roughly the sum of the 3 smallest drives in the box.

The key point though is that civilians don’t have to know about volume sizes, drive capacities or configuring RAID. Stick a couple of drives in the box and Drobo tells you what you’ve got.

Need more, add another drive. Once the slots are filled, pull the smallest drive out and add a larger drive. Don’t get too frisky though: with large drives the data movement takes many hours.

The instruction manual is printed on the inside of the faceplate that covers the drives. Big green and red lights give drive status.

Product line
Data access and performance are 2 sides of the same coin. If the performance is too slow for the application, the data is essentially not available – at least until you can move it to something faster.

The gen1 Drobo was USB only and crippled by anemic performance. Fine for photographs, but any decent-sized video file would choke it.

The second Drobo – now the low end model – added FireWire 800 to the mix. You could archive video on it, but not edit it in situ. About a year ago they introduced a 8 drive version with GigE and single-server iSCSI support and a dual-drive failure protection.

Last month Drobo added 2 new models: the Drobo S with 5 drives and eSATA; and the Drobo Elite, an 8 drive unit with dual GigE and multi-server iSCSI support. The latter is spec’d at 255 virtual LUNs, but ~100 is more realistic.

Performance
Now fellow blogger Devang Panchigar over at StorageNerve has published performance test results (pdf) of the current low-end model.

The net/net: USB tops out at about 32 MB/sec; while FW800 manages 52 MB/sec. Neither is fast enough for HD video, but FW800 will handle standard def video just fine.

I’m planning to buy a 5 slot Drobo S later this month with the help of a gift discount coupon from DR. After I’ve played with it I’ll let you know what I think. One problem already: getting a decent Mac eSATA driver for a PCIe card.

The StorageMojo take
DR is moving up market. They plan to stay with a self-imposed $15k price ceiling. With 3 TB drives right around the corner, a raw 24 TB iSCSI SAN array could come in at $8k or less.

$300/TB for a capacity large enough for many SMBs is disruptive – especially when the easy-enough-for-mom management is factored in. If they go public next year I suspect there will be a bidding war for them in ’11.

At $400 for an empty 4 slot box they aren’t competing on price either. They are showing the industry what can be done with a premium price – compared to the Buffalos and Iomegas – array that offers much greater ease of use. Their growth rate proves that is a popular message.

The bigger issue for old-line vendors is that the SMB market is about to get a lot tougher – as if it wasn’t tough enough. The enterprise ROBO market is also in play.

DR is the one to beat in the prosumer storage market.

Courteous comments welcome, of course. DR was a sponsor of the tech blogger excursion that flew me to Silicon Valley. And just for the record, Drobo doesn’t use ZFS.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Skeesicks December 1, 2009 at 5:28 pm

As a former user of a Buffalo TerraStation I must confess that performance was the biggest drawback in SoHo NAS storage business.

Even the TerraStation had a GbE connector topped out at about 10-20 Mbyte/s…I assumed this is due to the fact that the CPU was to little to handle GbE traffic for RAID5 devices.

The features of the Drobo devices remind me of a RAIDZ ZFS pool with a little enhancments..but having these in a “blackbox” is neat!

Veit Irtenkauf December 1, 2009 at 6:04 pm

I wrote an 18-month experience review on the original Drobo. Overall, it’s good, but not great value for the money. It works very reliably (which is most important), it has decent speed, it’s very slow in rebuilding the array if needed, it’s noisy, it has an XP problem and a nag screen issue. Overall, it’s very good if connected to a file server. I would not want to have it next to me connected to a desktop. While I have not tested the Drobo S, I wrote an opinion piece on Technorati why I feel it is overpriced. Overall, I recommend the original Drobo for file server use, while the jury is still out on the Drobo S.

Joe Perro December 1, 2009 at 10:17 pm

These Drobo’s are great. I own/had 3 generations from USB only USB/Firewire, and now DroboPro with iSCSI. I change computers/servers frequently, 18 mos on average. Moving data from machine-to-machine used to be a giant p.i.t.ass. No more. External storage is where its at. These products look cool — the wife lets one sit in our family room connected to an Apple TV — and they spare you from the mirage of a seemingly simple management task exploding and ruining your Sunday afternoon. These products suffer from an optical illusion — since you can buy them empty and add drives they seem expensive. If you buy them with drives they seem like incredible bargains. I’m glad to see that as their company grows they continue to offer products to their early adopted original customers. Count me in if they file for an IPO. They are solving customer’s problems instead of offering confusing geekspeak. Professionally, I’m a software engineer, but I don’t want any of the complicated IT crap speak in my home. Or business.

Nathan December 2, 2009 at 12:38 pm

I don’t really see the drobo being a disruptor…none of the big guys like the margins at the consumer level and none of the little guys have gotten entrenched enough in the SMB market for the drobo to be rightly considered a game-changer.

It’s a cool piece of technology, though with increasingly massive drives it’s a little hard to justify the cost versus a two-TB external drive. I realize the ability to do RAID gives the illusion of security, but hopefully by now people are starting to realize that a single copy of your data is a bad, bad thing, regardless of how fancy a device those data are on. I can see it finding a niche in businesses that are large enough to store more data than a single drive can hold but too small to have more than a single-person IT “department”.

Jim Sherhart December 2, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Robin – Great piece as always. We just finished up some internal performance testing on the Drobo S and let’s just say that reviewers should be pleasantly surprised. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on the point-of-view) we have distribution orders for every Drobo S we can build in Q4, so most reviews will have to wait until Q1.

Skeesicks – I think you have nailed the issue with most SOHO NAS. By the time you have added in the software overhead to support the laundry list of features that you may or may not use, you are left with a poor performing device. Exactly why Data Robotics is happy to focus on simple, safe, expandable DAS and iSCSI SAN products that deliver a better overall end user experience.

Veit – Not sure if you saw my comment on your Technorati article, but I did respond to your pricing argument. Happy to continue the discussion if you’d like.

Joe – Always a pleasure to hear from another satisfied customer. Feel free to drop me a line anytime should you have comments on how to make our products even better.

Regards,

Jim Sherhart
Sr. Director of Marketing
Data Robotics, Inc.
http://www.drobo.com

nate December 2, 2009 at 4:24 pm

Price seems pretty average, this from Infortrend has been on the market for about a year or so it seems(never used it myself but have used other Infortrend products several years ago mostly SATA->FC and SATA->SCSI with Raptor drives, worked well at the time.

http://www.infortrend.com/doc/datasheet/ES_S16E_RG1130_PRN_PDS_v1.2.pdf

Seems to be about $6k online w/no drives, takes up to 16 SAS or SATA drives, optional redundant controllers, can scale to 80TB via SAS links.

Myself of course I wouldn’t want to use cheap desktop grade disks. Western Digital RE4, Raptor, or Seagate ES.2 disks, I’m sure Hitachi has something similar as well but I still hold a grudge from the IBM 75GXP issue several years ago, was briefly involved in the lawsuit till the judge wanted to consolidate to only clients based out of California.

I was about to get a Thecus which is in the same market as Drobo I think, but decided against it once I figured out it was using software RAID(N770 at least).

I wouldn’t use an Infortrend in place of my 3PAR, but if I needed real cheap storage they have worked well for me in the past, and have many flexible configurations.

Ed Fries December 2, 2009 at 5:58 pm

We bought a Drobo Pro for use at a client site as a low end iSCSI SAN. Our mistake, returning it. While it might work as pro-sumer device it’s not ready for iSCSI (which Drobo recommends as the fastest connection type) and not ready for the SMB market.

Our experience:
-Firmware can’t be updated via iSCSI. Process is to dismount volume, power unit down, disconnect ethernet, reconnect via USB, manually power on, update firmware, shutdown, manually restart, confirm upgrade took correctly, shutdown, change from USB to ethernet, manually power on. Seriously.
-Unit can’t be restarted via mgmt app but oddly it can be shut down via mgmt app. We can remotely reboot the entire office except this device and the copier.
-We had several disconnects which resulted in 2 data corruption incidents, was told by support that new firmware would prevent it in the future (can’t confirm or deny that). While t-shooting the problem with tech support we were told to change the IP address to the one they suggest, had to explain subnetting to tech support.
-HD failed (which happens). First problem is the array went offline and hung until it was manually power cycled. We were told by support this was expected in some drive failure situations…which kind of defeats the purpose of an array. Second problem: we were told to return drive directly to drive manufacturer for replacement even though we bought the unit populated. They aren’t tracking failure rates on drives or warrantying the entire product.
-There are many posts in the Drobo forums about performance severely degrading when the data gets above a percentage of total capacity. Forums aren’t (weren’t?) open unless you had already bought a unit.
YMMV.
It was a great price, we had high hopes and thought we understood the limitations. The sales people were very friendly to deal with when we explained it wasn’t the right product for this environment, which we appreciated.

Jered Floyd December 2, 2009 at 8:53 pm

Robin,

The 2nd generation boxes definitely had the performance for the target market, users like me who want to protect data at home. I don’t like the mini-RAID boxes because of the challenges with expansion, and was willing to pay a price premium for a path forward to larger drives and an integrated solution. (I used to build Linux boxes for every purpose at home, and eventually found my time to be more valuable.)

I wish them luck: Drobo is doing new and right things with data storage. Some of the expansion features are very similar to what we do at my company. 😉 I’m not posting this message under my work email though for one reason:

I love my Drobo, but it has SERIOUS reliability problems. When I first got it, it would crash-reboot every 15 minutes… this was fixed quickly by a firmware update regarding the USB target driver. After this it would crash-reboot daily, and I got into the middle of fingerpointing between Apple, Drobo and Seagate (well, mostly the latter two), nobody willing to do anything to help solve my problem. I finally swapped out the drives to a different model just to try to make them help me.

Now I find my Drobo crash-reboots every 3-4 days. The logs even say “possible OS crash?”. (If you download the diagnostics, they’re “encrypted”. The encryption is to XOR every byte with 0xC3. Why hide your logs from your customer?) Drobo Support is polite, but refuses to do anything like, oh…. gather crash log data!

So now I have a box that I mostly love, but that loses data every few days. *sigh* This gives me great pause in ever considering their business products.

–Jered

Dale Underwood December 3, 2009 at 6:28 am

Good, fast or cheap – pick 2.

(Disclosure, we are an EqualLogic reseller)

Although the Dell EqualLogic PS4000E doesn’t come in under $10K unless you get a single controller model, you cannot argue with the performance and quality. A fully redundant dual controller unit will set you back around $12K. Watch the fan noise, you probably don’t want to put it in your home office.

Another interesting product is ioSafe (we are NOT a reseller) which combines high-capacity hard disk storage inside a fireproof/waterproof shell. Great idea. http://www.klsecurity.com

Dale

Tone Temple December 3, 2009 at 5:16 pm

I just checked out the Drobo site and found out that the new Drobo Elite (with 2 iSCSI connectors) are being sold on their site in a bundle. Check this out: if you buy two 16TB Drobo Elites, the bundle price is $6599. That’s not a typo! 32TB for $6.5K.

Jim Sherhart December 3, 2009 at 6:28 pm

Ed – Sorry to hear about your experience. Here are my responses:

1) Firmware absolutely CAN be updated via iSCSI. Curious if you remember the version of firmware used.
2) There should be no reason to reboot the DroboPro once configured. Can you elaborate on your requirement? FYI – I have forwarded the request to restart via Dashboard to product management.
3) Regarding disconnects and data corruption, some very early versions of firmware had some connection issues that were resolved but there are no documented data corruption issues as a result. We always recommend running the latest firmware.
4) Hard drive failure should NEVER take the unit offline. We fail drives all the time in our demos as this helps demonstrate the value proposition. Would be great to understand more about your specific scenario, but there are no known issues with this on any of our products. Regarding hard drive warranty returns, we have a direct relationship with WD and are working to streamline the return process.
5) The DroboPro performance issue being discussed in the forums affects less than 0.5% of the install base as it only occurs under a specific set of circumstances. The fix is in QA and should be released in less than two weeks. A notice on the fix was posted in the forums last week.

If your initial testing was shortly after launch, I highly recommend upgrading to the latest firmware and Dashboard and giving it another go. We have made many improvements in the last seven months.

Jered – Sorry to hear about your experience as well and have to say that it is very atypical. Have you been in contact with support and if so, what was their response? Sounds like a replacement unit is in order. Feel free to send me an email if you like. Otherwise I know how to get a hold of you as I am familiar with the enterprise archive space and know where you work.

Dale – Equallogic makes great products, but there is a need for cost-effective iSCSI storage in the SMB space – especially for tasks such as file sharing, backup, and archive. $10K for a few TBs of raw storage may be cheap to some businesses, but that can be a significant amount to a small business that maybe doesn’t need all the advanced functionality that Equallogic offers. Our DroboPro is available with 16TB for less than $3K. That’s a big difference.

Jim

Jered Floyd December 15, 2009 at 6:31 pm

BTW, I’ve been communicating with Jim and promise to post back when (I hope) my problems finally get resolved.

Peter M. O'Donnell December 16, 2009 at 6:12 am

Robin –

I have the original Drobo connected to my MacPro 2006 – while the performance isn’t stellar, it is certainly fast enough to playback highdef video. I would assume you’re absolutely correct about editing HD being a nonstarter – but playing 1280px wide mp4 in mkv & mov with data rates of 3000-5000kbps works great!

Cheers.

-pmod

John X December 31, 2009 at 6:41 am

I do the IT for a post production audio studio and the studio owner asked me to spec a backup system. I ended up going for a Drobo Pro + LTO4 tape drive, connected to a single server.

The Drobo has been a fantastic piece of kit for us – I work as a consultant with them (work when required) so the ease of use is a major factor, specifically the use of any drives for expansion which any runner can do if needed. We have been looking at getting a SAN setup within the next year or so and the new DroboPro Elite would seem to fit the bill perfectly, for about half the cost of any alternatives.

The comment about Drobos’ being good for businesses with <=1 sized IT department is certainly on the money for us.

Kebabbert January 17, 2010 at 4:11 pm

I dont understand why Drobo is not using open source ZFS? ZFS is more reliable than Drobo’s current RAID solution. Because it does not protect against bits slowly rotting away and silent corruption. Only ZFS does protect against that. Protection against bit rot would be a major selling point for Drobo, because no other (than highend machines using ZFS) offers it! Drobo would be the first cheap machine to offer protection against Silent Corruption. (see the spec for a new drive: it says “1 unrecoverable error in 10^14 bits” – ZFS protects against this)
http://queue.acm.org/detail.cfm?id=1317400

Hardware raid sucks, and does not offer good protection. See here for hardware raid short comings. In fact, many sysadmins advice against, for instance raid-5:
http://www.baarf.com/

steven warner January 19, 2010 at 9:36 pm

The drobo pro has reliability issue for some users. Like me. TS is very nice – but when it comes to a repeatable problem, it will always be someone else’s issue. I have had TS tell me that a HD was taking the system down – but that IS the value prop for drobo. The disks are fine until the red lite comes on. Replace disk. Keep copying data.
I have 3 non-pro Drobo’s love them.
My DroboPro – been a pain in the A$$. Right now, it wont pass chkdsk, no matter what I try. I reformat with new volumes its fine empty – then COPY files to it. At some point the thing just disconnects.
An “engineer” says there must be a problem in the file system. What? How is this possible?
Anyway – if it works for you – your life will be great. If not, you will be finding bugs for DataRobotics for free.
At least they could give me a tshirt. Or a hat.
s

Jered Floyd March 13, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Robin,

I promised I’d keep you up to date on this… Jim did get me hooked back up with Support, and we’ve been pursuing this. I thought we had it nailed down to unknown Seagate drive problems, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to have solved things. We’ve swapped out the chassis, power supply and most recently the drives but I still see frequent crash-reboots.

The problem only happens when connected to an Apple Time Capsule, so now that we’ve ruled out the drives it’s clearly an issue with one device or the other… but neither logs any errors, and neither vendor has yet provided any sort of debugging firmware.

This is easily the most frustrating technology support experience I’ve had, made worse by being told that nobody else has ever seen these problems. I guess my house is in the center of some sort of technology negation field…

I’m not happy with the Time Capsule for other reasons (can’t change even port mappings without a reboot? Really?), but it was $300 and the only supported platform for network Time Machine, so I’m stuck with that for a while. And the Drobo is a fortune compared to (much less capable) USB RAIDs. So I’m going to keep pursuing this… I’ll let you know where it ends.

–Jered

Adrian December 23, 2010 at 3:50 pm

It has been a while since this article has been written, and I have accumulated plenty of Drobo experience in the past 2 years of ownership.

DroboPro:
Major silent corruption issues, two incidents, about 130 files lost.

DroboPro FS:
Impossible to check with tools like Disk Warrior. Based on previous experience I have to assume 1% of data lost to silent corruption per year.

One hard drive was failing, but drobo was reporting business as usual (all green). As a result deleting 12 MB of data was taking over 90 minutes. I had to run diagnostics and send them in to Drobo to find out which drive had / was in the process of failing.

Conclusions:
At the very least Drobo should not encrypt the diagnostics, to a certain extent I can figure out a few things for myself, for example if bay 1 fails to mount 242 times in the past 24 hours, something is not a peachy as reported.

For me Drobo reliability is low both on the data level (corruption) and on the hardware level (not reporting failed hard drive).

For important data it’s ZFS or nothing. At the time we only use Drobo for non vital files. Drobo seems to be a great tool for the home user, I would gladly purchase it again for my parents. For reliable and cost efficient results, build your own ZFS or commission one.

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