➡ Updated 11/23/09: The new Drobo S is now available. It has five drive slots, single or dual-drive redundancy, and triple interfaces (eSATA, FW800 and USB 2.0).
My review of the new Firewire Drobo is somewhat overdue, but I wanted to spend a few good months with it before I wrote it. I have now spent that time, and am happy to say this new Drobo can be an avid computer user’s single storage device. Whatever reservations I had about the first-generation Drobo were eliminated by this new version, and I can now wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who needs to store a large amount of data and safeguard against a hard drive failure.
You may or may not know that I also reviewed the original Drobo. I published that review in December of 2007, after spending about a month with a USB Drobo, and updated it frequently since then, outlining the various good or bad points I found during my heavy-duty use of the device. Since that time, I became the owner of four Drobos (three USB Drobos and one Firewire Drobo) and found a couple of firmware bugs — I’m not claiming to be the first one to have found them, just saying I also found them — which were later addressed by firmware upgrades. The bugs were an overestimation of used space, and a significant drop in transfer speeds after the Drobo’s used space reached 80% or greater of the total available space. I had a number of different issues with my Drobos, all of which were detailed in my original review, and are now resolved.
I also wrote about the Drobo from the perspective of product design for the consumer and corporate markets. Tom Loverro, one of the execs from Data Robotics, responded at length to my article with some very interesting insights about the inception and introduction of the product to those markets.
What is it that differentiates the new Firewire Drobo from its predecessor? I’ll summarize it:
- Faster read/write performance thanks to an upgraded core processor and faster transfer method (Firewire vs. USB); slower read/write performance was a big point of contention with the first-generation Drobo
- Two Firewire 800 connectors in addition to the USB 2.0 connector, so you can daisy-chain other Firewire devices to the Drobo
- Different design for the cooling grille and a bigger cooling fan (the fan, without the cooling grille, was a silent upgrade that was also applied to some late builds of the first-generation Drobo)
Faster read/write performance
The official specs from Data Robotics quote the transfer speeds as follows:
- FireWire 800: Up to 52MB/s reads and 34MB/s writes
- USB 2.0: Up to 30MB/s reads and 24MB/s writes
I can vouch for the faster read/write performance myself. As a matter of fact, I can safely say that the performance approaches that of my WD My Book Studio Edition II, which is also a Firewire 800 device, that I have used in both RAID 0 and RAID 1 configurations. In layman’s terms, I can copy about 800 MB – 1 GB per minute to my Drobo, while I can copy about 1 GB – 1.2 GB per minute to my WD My Book Studio Edition II drive in RAID 1 config. These are large files I’m copying, ranging in size from 1-4 GB.
If we do some quick math with the official figures, we can see that you could get up 2040 MB or about 2 GB per minute written to the Drobo over a Firewire 800 connection per the specs. In my real world experience, I was able to get about half that, as you can see above. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Again, you have to compare the Drobo with another Firewire 800 device, and I did. If I can get about the same performance from my Drobo, which has to write the data across four drives, as I can get from my WD Studio Edition II, which only has two drives to worry about, then I’m pretty happy.
Two Firewire 800 connectors and different cooling grille
Have a look at this photo to get a better look at the different back design for the new Drobo. You can see the two Firewire 800 connectors, the USB 2.0 and DC connectors and the different grille design below.
In the other-things-that-are-different department, I noticed that Drobo now allows people to format its volumes in the EXT3 file system (Linux), in addition to NTFS, FAT32 and HFS+, although they do say that Linux support is in beta on their website. It has nothing to do with the new Drobo 2.0 hardware, as this involved a firmware upgrade and a Drobo Dashboard upgrade, not a parts upgrade, but it’s a pretty cool move on Data Robotics’ part.
Another thing that looks a bit different is the power supply. The original one was a simple plastic brick, but the new one has a line motif going across it, parallel to its long axis. This newer power supply was also shipped with some of the late builds of the previous-generation USB Drobo.
If you look at one of the photos I posted above, the one of the new Drobo’s back, you’ll see a Reset slot. Can you see it, to the left of the FW800 connectors? It was present on the back of the original USB Drobo as well, to the left of its main (and only) USB connector. Sure enough, there’s even a tech note about it, which explains how to wipe the Drobo clean. This means it’s a dangerous little slot, so don’t use it unless you really mean it.
I never got around to posting the Drobo’s dimensions in my original review, so here they are. They haven’t changed with the new Drobo. I like the form factor, I hope it keeps staying the same. In all likelihood, it will stay the same for this four-drive version of the Drobo. I know, thanks to a product survey sent out to selected Drobo customers, that Data Robotics is thinking about or working on an 8-drive and possibly a 16-drive version of the Drobo, one of which (or both) is rack-mountable. Those should be some very interesting products for the enterprise or for those with larger storage needs than what the four-drive Drobo can provide. I understand that Data Robotics is also working on the capability to safeguard against two drive failures in those larger Drobo models, which should be a very cool feature indeed.
In terms of storage flexibility and the safety of one’s data, I believe the Drobo is unmatched. There is no other product like it on the market. The only thing that’s holding it back at the moment, storage-wise, is the capability of the hard drives themselves. Only recently have the problems present in the 1.5TB drives from Seagate been worked out, and only in recent weeks have I seen 1.5TB and 2TB drives from other manufacturers like Samsung and WD. This means, according to the Drobolator, that you can get up to 5.5TB of disk space on a single Drobo unit, which is pretty amazing, but still far from the 16TB limit. I think 16TB is a lot of space to get from a single device, and it should suffice for the needs of most people for the next few years.
Cheers to the new and improved Firewire Drobo!
Images used courtesy of Data Robotics.