On paper, Drobo is brilliant. It’s a RAID-like system for data storage, without the limitations of conventional RAID systems. Particularly attractive is that you can mix and match drives of any sizes at any time — if you run out of space, you can go ahead and pop in a larger drive without even needing to do anything else.
Unfortunately, based on my experience with their products (two of their bottom-of-the-line four-bay Drobos), there’s trouble in paradise. Here are some of the reasons:
1. It’s incredibly slow. Like, crazy slow. On a normal FireWire drive, CrashPlan reports write rates of 30 MB/sec or more. With the Drobo attached by FireWire, it hovers around 2 MB/sec.
2. When you need to pop in a new drive, it can take well over a week for it to be assimilated into the system. We have been in the process of replacing 2 GB drives with 3 GB drives, and because the data can only survive one drive being out, you have to go one at a time. Each new drive has taken about two weeks to “relayout”, making this a two-month process, and during each of these periods, if any of the other three drives were to fail, we’d lose all our data.
3. Their tech support suggests this relayout time is pretty normal, but there’s absolutely nothing on their web site or in their documentation that suggests it should take more than a day or so (and in fact it suggests that something might be wrong if it takes longer than that).
4. Their tech support can’t answer fundamental questions consistently, like what exactly happens when you hit the storage ceiling (since the way it works, the Mac doesn’t know it’s actually out of space), or what exactly is happening when a drive is out, and their software alarmingly tells you that you’re over capacity. I have gotten completely conflicting answers from different support representatives.
5. It’s a proprietary system, so if something goes south with your setup, only Drobo can help you, if they even can. If you use a Drobo, you’d be well advised to make sure you have a backup of everything on it, preferably not on a Drobo.
When it comes to data, you want to know exactly what to expect, and Drobo’s literature and support doesn’t provide it, unfortunately. I want to believe, but I no longer can. Perhaps their newer, more expensive products perform better; and a larger unit could provide dual-drive failure survival which would make the slow relayout pr0cess safer. And maybe the units would perform better if they were used as a file storage target, rather than a continuous use scenario like being a CrashPlan target.
But there’s no guidance on their web site. They say to use any kind of drive for any kind of application. The lack of clear information about the fundamental operation of the unit is, in the end, what damns the Drobo for me. We’ve moved on to the Promise Pegasus R6, which has been great from a performance perspective, but, as a traditional RAID, there’s no way to expand its capacity without copying all the data off, putting in a matched set of new larger drives, and copying it back. That’s the pain point that made the Drobo so attractive. But it brings its own kind of pain.