Data Robotics Drobo review

Price when reviewed

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen any really innovative desktop storage solutions, but Data Robotic’s latest Drobo could be just the panacea for our jaded palates. This compact box may look like a standard four-drive DAS appliance, but there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes to make it unique.

The philosophy behind the Drobo is that most small-business users don’t want the hassle of configuring and managing RAID arrays on desktop appliances, so it has automated everything. Calling it a storage robot is a little far fetched, but the Drobo allows you to mix and match SATA drives of different capacities, replace failed drives on the fly and upgrade capacity with new, larger drives as the whim takes you.

Instead of RAID, the appliance automatically places all drives into a virtual storage pool, and in a two-drive configuration will use the capacity of one for redundancy. The appliance works at the block level and can therefore use drives of differing capacities, and Data Robotics has a quick calculator on its website that will tell you what your total capacity will be when mixing them. If a drive fails, you still need to replace it, but unlike standard RAID arrays the appliance may be able to provide redundancy if there’s enough free space on the remaining drives.

The basic Drobo is a simple DAS appliance and it’s disappointing that it sports only a USB2 port. As we’ve seen with the Iomega Power Pro, eSATA is the way to go if you want top performance. However, although it looks like a knee-jerk reaction, the Drobo can now be turned into a NAS appliance with the optional DroboShare unit. This shares power with a Y-connector, provides a gigabit network port, and can be linked with two appliances via short USB cables.

Drive installation is tool-free, as you merely slip them in where a locking lever holds them in place. We connected the appliance to a Boston Supermicro dual 3GHz Xeon 5160 system running Windows Vista, where it was recognised without any problems. The Dashboard utility shows the status of installed drives plus used and available capacities, and offers tools for formatting the array, putting it into a standby mode and upgrading the firmware.

DAS performance is uninspiring, with our real-world test copies of large video clips returning read and write speeds of 17.3MB/sec and 15MB/sec – on a par with most desktop NAS appliances. We then connected the appliance to the DroboShare unit, where it obtained an IP address from our router and became visible to all systems running the Dashboard.


Access controls are minimal, since all you can do is specify a workgroup and password protect all Drobo shares. As expected, the USB link to the DroboShare restricted performance, so even over gigabit ethernet this was no better than a local connection.

New storage technologies always have a hard time when going up against the establishment. We’ve seen this with the Transtec Provigo 210, which employs Zetera’s Z-SAN – a technology launched in 2005 and still lacking any significant market penetration.

How the Drobo fairs will most certainly be down to how aggressively it’s marketed and developed, but for now it offers nothing that would persuade us to replace the lab’s Netgear ReadyNAS appliances and their vastly superior features.

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