Permanent data storage

We need to focus our efforts on finding more permanent ways to store data. What we have now is inadequate. Hard drives are susceptible to failure, data corruption and data erasure (see effects of EM pulses for example). CDs and DVDs become unreadable after several years and archival-quality optical media also stops working after 10-15 years, not to mention that the hardware itself that reads and writes to media changes so fast that media written in the past may become unreadable in the future simply because there’s nothing to read it anymore. I don’t think digital bits and codecs are a future-proof solution, but I do think imagery (stills or sequences of stills) and text are the way to go. It’s the way past cultures and civilizations have passed on their knowledge. However, we need to move past pictographs on cave walls and cuneiform writing on stone tablets. Our data storage needs are quite large and we need systems that can accommodate these requirements.

We need to be able to read/write data to permanent media that stores it for hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of years, so that we don’t lose our collective knowledge, so that future generations can benefit from all our discoveries, study us, find out what worked and what didn’t.

We need to find ways to store our knowledge permanently in ways that can be easily accessed and read in the future. We need to start thinking long-term when it comes to inventing and marketing data storage devices. I hope this post spurs you on to do some thinking of your own about this topic. Who knows what you might invent?

How to create a Fusion Drive on a mid-2011 iMac

Yes, you can enable Fusion Drive on older Macs. I’m not sure how this method will work with Macs older than 2011, but I know for sure that it works on mid-2011 iMacs, and quite possibly on other Macs made since then. I have just completed this process for my iMac and I thought it would help you if I detailed it here.

I like Fusion Drive because it’s simple and automated, like Time Machine. Some geekier Mac users will likely prefer to install an SSD and manually separate the system and app files from the user files which take up the most space, which is something that gives them more control over what works faster and what doesn’t, but that’s a more involved process. Fusion Drive works automatically once you set it up, moving the files that are used more often onto the SSD and keeping the ones that are accessed less often on the hard drive. This results in a big performance increase without having to fiddle with bash commands too much.

The hardware

My machine is a 27″ mid-2011 iMac with a 3.4 GHz processor and 16GB of RAM. I bought it with a 1TB hard drive, which I recently considered upgrading to a 3TB hard drive but decided against, given the fan control issues with the temperature sensor and the special connector used on the factory drive.

imac-basic-specs

I purchased a 128GB Vertex4 SSD from OCZ. It’s a SATA III (6 Gbps) drive and when I look in System Info, my iMac sees it as such and is able to communicate with it at 6 Gbps, which is really nice.

ocz-vertex4-ssd-128gb

ssd-specs

The hardware installation is somewhat involved, as you will need to not only open the iMac but also remove most of the connections and also unseat the motherboard so you can get at the SATA III connector on its back. You will also need a special SATA wire, which is sold as a kit from both OWC and iFixit. The kit includes the suction cups used to remove the screen (held into place with magnets) and a screwdriver set.

2nd-drive-ssd-kit

You can choose to do the installation yourself if you are so inclined, but realize that you may void the warranty on the original hard drive if something goes wrong, and this is according to Apple Tech Support, with whom I checked prior to ordering the kit. Here are a couple of videos that show you how to do this:

In my case, it just so happened that my iMac needed to go in for service (the video card, SuperDrive and display went bad) and while I had it in there, I asked the technicians to install the SSD behind the optical drive for me. This way, my warranty stayed intact. When I got my iMac back home, all I had to do was to format both the original hard drive and the SSD and proceed with enabling the Fusion Drive (make sure to back up thoroughly first). You can opt to do the same, or you can send your computer into OWC for their Turnkey Program, where you can elect to soup it up even more.

The software

Once I had backed up everything thoroughly through Time Machine, I used the instructions in this Macworld article to proceed. There are other articles that describe the same method, and the first man to realize this was doable and blog about it was Patrick Stein, so he definitely deserves a hat tip. I’ll reproduce the steps I used here; feel free to also consult the original articles.

1. Create a Mountain Lion (10.8.2) bootup disk. Use an 8GB or 16GB stick for this, it will allow you to reformat everything on the computer, just to clean things up. Otherwise you may end up with two recovery partitions when you’re done. I used the instructions in this Cult of Mac post to do so. The process involves re-downloading 10.8.2 from the Apple Store (if you haven’t bought it yet, now is the time to do so) and an app called Lion Diskmaker.

2. Format both the original HD and the SSD, just to make sure they’re clean and ready to go. Use Disk Utility to do this, or if you’re more comfortable with the command line, you can also do that (just be aware you can blow away active partitions with it if you’re not careful).

2. List the drives so you can get their correct names. In my case, they were /dev/disk1 and /dev/disk2.

diskutil list

3. Create the Fusion Drive logical volume group. When this completes, you’ll get something called a Core Storage LGV UUID. Copy that number, you’ll need it for the following step.

diskutil coreStorage create myFusionDrive /dev/disk1 /dev/disk2

4. Create the Fusion Drive logical volume. I used the following command:

diskutil coreStorage createVolume paste-lgv-uuid-here jhfs+ "Macintosh HD" 100%

5. Quit Terminal and begin a fresh install of Mountain Lion onto the new disk called “Macintosh HD”.

6. Restore your apps, files and system settings from the Time Machine backup using the Migration Assistant once you’ve booted up. Here’s an article that shows you how to do that. When that completes, you’re done!

The result

Was it worth it? Yes. The boot-up time went from 45-60 seconds to 15 seconds, right away. And over time, the apps and files I use most often will be moved onto the SSD, thus decreasing the amount of time it’ll take to open and save them.

At some point, I expect Apple to issue a utility, like Boot Camp, that will allow us to do this more easily and automatically. Until then, that’s how I set up Fusion Drive on my iMac, and I hope it’s been helpful to you!

Hardware preview: ioSafe N2 NAS

ioSafe, the company famous for its line of rugged external drives that can withstand disasters such as floods, fires and even crushing weight, has come up with a new product: the N2 NAS (Network Attached Storage) device.

The N2 device comes at the right time. The market for NAS devices is maturing and demand is growing. Western Digital has even come out with a line of hard drives, the WD Red, specifically targeted to NAS enclosures. To my knowledge there is no such other NAS device out there, so ioSafe’s got the lead on this.

The N2 appliance is powered by Synology® DiskStation Manager (DSM) and is aimed at the SOHO, SMB and Remote Office Branch Office (ROBO) markets.

The high performance 2-bay N2 provides up to 8TB of storage capacity and is equipped with a 2GHz Marvel CPU and 512MB of memory. The N2 uses redundant hard drives as well as ioSafe’s patented DataCast, HydroSafe and FloSafe technologies to protect data from loss in fire up to 1550°F and submersion in fresh or salt water up to a 10 foot depth for 3 days.

Features:

  • Local and Remote File Sharing: Between virtually any device from any location online
  • Cloud Station: File syncing between multiple computers and N2 (like Dropbox)
  • iTunes Server
  • Surveillance Station: Video surveillance application
  • Media Server: Stream videos and music
  • Photo Sharing: Photo sharing with friends and family
  • Mail Server: Email server
  • VPN Server: Manage Virtual Private Network
  • Download Station: Post files for others to download
  • Audio Station: Stream audio to smartphone (iOS/Android)
  • FTP Server: Remote file transfers
  • Multi-platform compatibility with Mac/PC/MS Server/Linux

Hardware:

  • Dual Redundant Disk, RAID 0/1, Up to 8TB (4TB x 2)
  • 2GHz Marvel CPU and 512MB memory
  • Gigabit Ethernet Port
  • Additional ports for USB 3, SD Memory Card
  • User replaceable drives
  • Protects Data From Fire: DataCast Technology. 1550°F, 1/2 hr per ASTM E119 with no data loss.
  • Protects Data From Flood: HydroSafe Technology. Full immersion, 10 ft. 3 days with no data loss.
  • FloSafe Vent Technology: Active air cooling during normal operation. FloSafe Vents automatically block destructive heat during fire by water vaporization – no moving parts
  • Physical theft protection (optional floor mount, padlock door security – coming Q1 2013)
  • Kensington® Lock Compatible

Support and Data Recovery Service (DRS):

  • 1 Year No-Hassle Warranty (for N2 Diskless)
  • 1 Year No-Hassle Warranty + Data Recovery Service (DRS) Standard (for loaded N2)
  • DRS included $2500/TB for forensic recovery costs for any reason if required
  • DRS and Warranty are upgradeable to 5 years ($.99/TB per month)
  • DRS Pro available includes $5000/TB + coverage of attached server ($2.99/TB per month)

Operating Environment:

  • Operating: 0-35° C (95°F)
  • Non-operating: 0-1550°F, 1/2 hr per ASTM E119
  • Operating Humidity: 20% – 80% (non-condensing)
  • Non-operating Humidity: 100%, Full immersion, 10 feet, 3 days, fresh or salt water

Physical:

  • Size: 5.9″W x 9.0″H x 11.5″L
  • Weight: 28 lbs

The N2 appliance is being brought to market with funding obtained through IndieGogo. I know it’s hard to believe it when you look at their products, but ioSafe only has about 20 employees. Sometimes they have to be creative in the ways they fund their R&D.

The ioSafe N2 will begin shipping in January 2013 and will be available in capacities up to 8TB. Introductory pricing for the ioSafe N2 diskless version is available for $499 on Indiegogo ($100 off the retail price of $599.99) if you want to get your own hard drives.

I’ve also written about ioSafe Solo, the ioSafe Rugged Portable and the ioSafe SSD devices.

What’s next in data storage?

My recent musings on high definition and the state of the technology behind it have spurred me to think about data storage (not that it’s a new subject for me). But so far, I’ve commented only on what’s already been developed, and didn’t take the time to think about what’s next.

What’s the motivation behind this post? It’s simple. For Ligia’s Kitchen, it costs me about 10.5 GB for 5 minutes of final, edited footage of show, with a one-camera setup. What goes into the 10.5GB? There’s the raw footage (and sound files, if I use a standalone mic), the edits, and the final, published footage. When I use two cameras, the space needed can easily go up by 1.5-2.5x, depending on the shots I need to get. I shoot and edit in 1080p, and output to 720p.

My storage needs are okay for now. I’ve got plenty of space, and if I keep going at this rate, I should be fine. But… and there’s always a but, isn’t there… I have more show ideas in mind. And there’s the hypothetical possibility of shooting with a RED camera at some point in the future, if certain factors come together to allow it. So I’m thinking ahead.

Current hard drive technology (bits of data on disks) has certainly come a long way. Those of us who’ve been in the business long enough know what prices used to be like for capacities that are laughable by today’s standards. Back in 1999, I paid $275 for a 27GB hard drive. My laptop’s drive in college could store a grand total of 120MB. And when I began to learn programming, I’d load the code into memory from tape…

I remember being really excited about Hitachi’s new Perpendicular Magnetic Recording Technology, which came out in early 2006. They even had an animation on their website, which they’ve taken down since. That technology is behind all of the new hard drives that are on the market today, by the way. Hitachi came up with a way to get the bits of data to stand up (hence the term perpendicular) instead of lying down on hard drive platters, thus doubling the amount of data that could be stored onto them.

There are two roads ahead when it comes to data storage, of which one is more likely to succeed:

  • Optical storage (this is probably the future of storage)
  • Biological storage

Let’s first look at biological storage. One particular article made the rounds lately: researchers at the Chinese University in Hong Kong have managed to store 90GB of data in 1g of bacteria. While it sounds exciting, the idea of storing my data in petri dishes on my desk doesn’t readily appeal to me, and certain complications come up:

  • 1g of bacteria is about 10 million cells (that’s a LOT); one must start thinking about the potential for bio hazards when you work with bacteria.
  • The data is stored in a bacteria’s DNA, which means it’s encrypted (a good thing), but it’s also subject to significant mutation (a bad thing) and it takes a long time to retrieve it because you need a gene sequencer, which is tedious and expensive (a bad thing).

I’m not against this. Hey, if they can make it safe and fast, okay. But I believe this is going to be relegated to special applications. The article suggests the technique is currently used to store copyright information for newly created organisms (I wonder how many new bacteria researchers as a whole have created, and is it any wonder antibiotics have such a hard time working against them when we keep playing God). I also see this sort of data storage as a way for spies to operate, or for governments to keep certain secrets.

Okay, onto more cheery stuff, like optical storage. I’ve always thought there was massive potential here, and am glad to see significant work has already been done to make this a reality. There are two technologies which are feasible, according to research that’s already been done:

  • HDSS (Holographic Data Storage Systems), which so far can store up to 1TB of data in a crystal the size of a sugar cube, but doesn’t yet allow rewrites
  • 3D optical data storage, which so far can store up to 1TB of data onto a 1.2mm thick optical disc

These developments are very encouraging. Optical storage is safe, and its potential capacities are huge, possibly endless. And when you think about computer hardware, and how manufacturers are looking at using optical technology in the bridges and buses and wires inside the hardware, because it’s incredibly fast, you start to see how optical makes sense. Let’s also not forget fiber optic cabling, and its incredible capacity to carry data. It certainly looks like optical is the future!

So what’s going to happen to the standard 3.5″ form factor of today’s hard drives? Well, it’s likely that it will stay the same, even though it the storage technology inside it might change. We’ll have crystals and lasers instead of platters and heads, but they’ll likely be able to fit them in there somehow. I don’t think we’ll need to start keeping crystal libraries on our desks, like in Superman’s Crystal Cave, and sticking various-sized crystals into our computers any time soon, although it did look pretty cool when Christopher Reeve did it in the movie.

It really all depends on how soon this new technology will come to market. Right now, there’s clearly enough vested interest in the 3.5″ and 2.5″ form factors to motivate drive manufacturers to shoehorn the new technologies into those shapes, but if optical hard drives won’t be here for the next 5-10 years, then it’s possible that the form factor will change as well. We are after all moving to smaller, sleeker shapes for most computers, notebooks and desktops alike.

Hardware preview: the ioSafe Rugged Portable

I’m a fan of ioSafe‘s rugged hard drives, which you can trust with your data through very rough conditions. I was glad to write about the ioSafe Solo (their first product), and the ioSafe SSD, because no other company on the market offered such unparalleled protection from destruction.

Now they’re launching a new model, the ioSafe Rugged Portable — their first drive made for travel.

As you can see, they’re using a new design, with a machined Aluminum or Titanium enclosure that can withstand up to 5,000 lbs (Ti) or 2,500 lbs of pressure (Al). The drive is suspended on all six axes of motion, and can withstand a drop from 20′ (SSD version) or 10′ (HDD version).

Of course, the drive can still withstand immersion in water — up to 10′ (Al) or 30′ (Ti), both up to 3 days in duration. And it’s got a whole other bunch of protections built in as well:

  • ChemSafeTM Technology – Full immersion in diesel fuel, oils, hydraulic fluids, aircraft fuels, 12” depth for 1 hour with no data loss per MIL-STD-810G Method 504
  • EnviroSafeTM Technology – Continuous exposure to UV, blowing sand, blowing dust, rain, salt fog, icing or freezing rain, 24 hours with no data loss per MIL-STD-810G Methods 505.4, 506.4, 509.4 and 510
  • AltiSafeTM Technology – High altitude operation. 15K ft. (Alum.) and 30K ft. (SSD and Ti.) rated altitudes per MIL-STD-810G Method 500.4
  • Theft Resistant Kensington® Lock compatible slot solid metal construction – theft protection

As you’ve no doubt gathered so far, there are multiple flavors of the drive, with HDDs or SSDs inside, and Aluminum or Titanium enclosures. And it ships with USB 3.0, FW800 and USB 2.0 connections — your choice.

Possibly the best feature — given the drive’s title — is its weight, which comes to 1 lbs for the Al enclosure and 1.5 lbs for the Ti enclosure.

Drobo S gets USB 3.0 upgrade

Drobo S, the 5-bay, 3-interface storage array from Data Robotics got a neat upgrade to USB 3.0 today. Instead of USB 2.0, it will now have eSATA, FW800 and USB 3.0 ports on its back. This is a hardware refresh, which means the USB 2.0 model has been phased out. You should expect it to be “up to 50% faster than FW800” when using the USB 3.0 port, according to Data Robotics.

During the press briefing, I asked Mark Fuccio (Data Robotics) whether the 4-bay Firewire Drobo will get a USB 3.0 upgrade as well. He said they have no plans to upgrade it. It will stay as is. Apparently its bandwidth maxes out at FW800 speeds, and adding USB 3.0 to it would be superfluous. Data Robotics recommends that folks get the Drobo S if they want heavy-duty performance.

In other Drobo news, Drobo Sync, the nifty disaster recovery software that was announced for the DroboPro FS, is now available. If you were wondering how Data Robotics is doing these days, they’re growing. And HP has just begun selling Drobos, which is great for them and useful for us. You’ll be able to go online and get a performance HP desktop to help you zoom through your photo or video processing, and also get a Drobo S to help you safely store all those terabytes of data.

The upgraded Drobo S will be available from all the usual retailers like Amazon and B&H Photo, and of course, HP Small Business Direct.

Hardware preview: DroboPro FS

Today, the DroboPro FS will be announced by Data Robotics. It’s the bigger brother of the Drobo FS, and it’s aimed at creative professionals, SOHOs and SMBs.

There was a gap in Drobo’s file sharing lineup. They had a NAS device, sure (the Drobo FS), but it didn’t have the capacity and the bandwidth of the DroboPro FS, which has two Gigabit Ethernet ports and eight drive bays.

Its ethernet ports can be configured two ways:

  1. On two different subnets, for offsite file replication, and
  2. Failover mode, where one port takes over if the other one dies

The really nice part here is the DroboPro FS works seamlessly with a new piece of software (to be introduced shortly) by Data Robotics, called Drobo Sync. The way it works makes the DroboPro FS the perfect candidate for offsite backups, for disaster recovery purposes.

Say you have two DroboPro FS units. You keep the first one in your company’s server room, do your internal backups to it, over the local network, and then run a quick DroboPro FS to DroboPro FS initial sync job using Drobo Sync. When that’s done, you can take the 2nd DroboPro FS unit to your disaster recovery site, plug it in over there, and Drobo Sync will start doing incremental backups automatically, saving you bandwidth and validating each file on a block-by-block level to make sure the data is identical on both Drobos. This is a solution that would be perfect for overworked sysadmins, because the setup and administration are easy, and the total cost is less than that of comparative solutions.

It uses the same form factor as the DroboPro and the DroboElite, which means it shares the same measures, and the same rack-mount kit. And you can also customize it with Drobo Apps, just like the Drobo FS.

A base DroboPro FS costs around $1,999, but you can buy it bundled with hard drive sets (8TB, 16TB and 32TB). It’s available directly from Data Robotics, or from B&H Photo, Amazon and other retailers.

Always check a SATA drive’s jumper settings

I made a quick video that shows you why it’s always important to check a SATA drive’s jumper settings. Many of us assume that since we’re dealing with SATA, not PATA/IDE drives, the jumper settings are no longer important. After all, the Master/Slave relationship no longer applies to the SATA model. Not so. The jumper settings on SATA drives control other important drive settings, such as their speed of operation.

Have a look at this Seagate 500GB SATA drive, the one in my video. I assumed (wrong) that it was operating at 3.0 Gb/sec all along. It wasn’t. For over 2 years, I had three of these drives in one of my Drobo units, and I thought I was getting 3.0 Gb/sec from them, when in fact I was only getting 1.5 Gb/sec. That’s because they shipped with a jumper set to limit their speed of operation at 1.5 Gb/sec from the factory, and I didn’t check it before sticking them in my Drobo and forgetting about them.

Only now, as I re-shuffled the drives between my Drobo units, did I realize I hadn’t been getting 3.0 Gb/sec from them, and corrected the situation right away.

I can understand why Seagate would want to ship the drives set to 1.5 Gb/sec. After all, some older computers might not be capable of 3.0 Gb/sec, and you’d run into compatibility issues. They assume IT geeks would know what to do, and they’re right, they would, if they’d only bother to look…

Hardware preview: ioSafe SSD – fireproof, waterproof, crushproof and shockproof

Back in September 2009, I wrote about the ioSafe Solo, a fireproof and waterproof drive. In January 2010, at CES in Las Vegas, ioSafe, the company behind these disaster-proof drives, launched a new product, the ioSafe Solo SSD.

It’s the same size as the ioSafe Solo, it looks the same outside, except for the branding, which now adds “SSD”, but inside, it’s a whole new ballgame. Instead of using a regular 3.5″ SATA drive, they’re using a 2.5″ Solid State Drive. This means they have even more spare space to play with when it comes to disaster-proofing the device — which they certainly did!

The ioSafe SSD isn’t only fireproof (same serious specs as ioSafe Solo), and waterproof (better specs than ioSafe Solo, now with full immersion up to 30 ft for 30 days with no data loss), but it’s also crushproof (5000 lbs, any axis with no data loss) and shockproof (20 ft drop into rubble, 1000g shock for 1ms with no data loss).

Here’s a video from CES where Rob Moore, the company’s CEO, burns the drive, then floods it with a firehose, then has it dropped from about 20 feet, then has it run over with a bulldozer. In the end, even though the enclosure gets destroyed, the data stored onto it remains perfectly safe.

Quoting from the press release:

“Combining ioSafe’s new proprietary ArmorPlate, a military grade steel outer casing with SSD technology, the new ioSafe Solo SSD adds unprecedented shock, drop and crush protection to the existing fire and water protection.

The ioSafe Solo SSD combined with ArmorPlate helps to protect data in a two story building collapse, 5000 lb. crush forces, 20’ drop into rubble and up to a 1000g shock. In addition the original HydroSafe™, FloSafe™ and DataCast™ work to keep the drive cool during normal operation and protect the data from fires up to 1550°F for 1/2 hour and complete water submersion of 30’ for 30 days in fresh or salt water. Like all ioSafe products, the ioSafe Solo SSD comes with ioSafe’s Data Recovery Service, a “no questions asked” policy to help customers recover from any data disaster including accidental deletion, virus or physical disaster.”

The specs say the ArmorPlate military-grade steel is 1/4″ thick. That’s mighty thick. It also makes the ioSafe SSD about 5 lbs heavier than the ioSafe Solo. It now weighs in at 20 lbs.

I wonder if the whole device could withstand bullets, because then it would make a perfect military storage device for use in conflict zones. For example, it could be placed in tanks, humvees and helicopters to store video, audio and coordinate information during patrols. And at 256GB for the largest size drive, it could store plenty of HD video, if the military should want to go in that direction.

But let’s not go into hypothetical situations. The ioSafe SSD can work for disaster recovery right now. Should your place of business burn down or fall down or be flooded, any data stored on the ioSafe SSD will be available to you immediately, as soon as you dig it out of the rubble. That’s a tangible advantage. You can simply add this drive to your server room, or put it in the CEO’s or CFO’s office, and let him or her back up important documents to it, knowing they’ll be there in case of a disaster.

The thought just occurred to me — do you know how they could make it better? If it’s meant to survive disasters and be buried in rubble, it needs a geo chip of some sort, so you can locate it with a proximity device. It could be something simple that beeps faster the closer you are to the drive, so you don’t have to dig through all the rubble to find it, should it come to that.

And there’s another goodie packed into the drive: an eSATA interface. This, coupled with an SSD, means you’ll get blazing fast write and read speeds. You can see the eSATA connector on the back, next to the USB and power connectors.

Pricing for the three different Solo SSD models starts at $499 for 64GB, $749 for 128GB, and $1250 for 256GB. It’s a bit steep, but then, SSDs are still expensive, and no other drive on the market (that I know of) offers this level of physical protection for your data.

Images used courtesy of ioSafe. You can see photos, videos, specs and more information about the Solo SSD on their website.

Switch drive packs between two Drobos while keeping your data safe

Sometimes you’ll need to switch your drive packs (the set of drives that sits in a Drobo) between two Drobos. Or say you’re using two drive packs on the same Drobo. How do you switch the two packs safely, to ensure you lose none of your precious data?

That’s the question I asked myself a couple of days ago, when I found that I needed to interchange the drive packs between my 2nd Generation (FW800) Drobo and my 1st Generation (USB 2.0 Drobo). I’d expected this move for a while, as I hinted to it in a recent post entitled “What’s on your Drobo“. It has to do with my photography workflow, and if you’d like to read through the rationale, you’re welcome to check out that post.

So, what’s involved?

  1. Safely shut down the Drobo(s)
  2. Disconnect power and FW/USB cables
  3. Take out disk pack as a whole from one Drobo
  4. Insert disk pack as a whole into another Drobo (or same Drobo, as the case may be)
  5. Connect FW/USB cables
  6. Connect power cables
  7. Boot up the Drobo(s)

I’ve put together a video demonstration of the process, which you can watch below or on YouTube. This was unrehearsed, and it’s not something I did before, so there was a fair bit of related anxiety. I rely very heavily on my Drobo units for data archival, and I don’t ever want to lose any of my data. Thankfully, everything went smoothly, and things are working great!

The detailed steps involved in the process are listed in two tech notes on the Data Robotics website:

  1. How do I safely shut down my Drobo?
  2. Can I move my disk pack from one Drobo storage device to another?

I need to add here that drive packs aren’t interchangeable between all Drobo models. You’ll need to read carefully through that second tech note listed above to make sure you don’t unintentionally corrupt your Drobo volume by putting the pack in an incompatible Drobo device.

If you’re wondering why one ought to bother to switch data packs, the decision needs to be made on a case-by-case basis. In my situation, the alternative would have been a manual copy of the data, which would have taken days, since I work with terabytes. Switching the drive packs took 15-20 minutes altogether (reading through the tech notes, emailing Drobo Support to ask them a question, and actually doing it). The trade-off, if I hadn’t done things correctly, would have been costly and possibly irreversible data loss. Fortunately, things went according to plan!

Hardware preview: Drobo FS

As of today, the Drobo product lineup has a shiny new device: a network version of the Drobo S, called Drobo FS — a NAS device. Its performance is up to 4x greater than that of a DroboShare, which is going to be discontinued. The Drobo FS is a natural at shared file storage, network backup and private cloud applications. You’ll be able to manage it through the Drobo Dashboard application, which will detect it automatically once it’s plugged into your network.

New Drobo Line-up

Here’s how the Drobo product line-up is going to look from now on, sorted in ascending order by US list price (at time of writing):

  1. Drobo, 2nd Gen (2 x FW800, 1 x USB 2.0) $399
  2. Drobo FS (1 x Gigabit Ethernet, AFP/CIFS/SMB) $699
  3. Drobo S (1 x eSATA, 2 x FW800, 1 x USB 2.0) $799
  4. DroboPro (1 x Gigabit iSCSI, 2 x FW800, 1 x USB 2.0) $1,499
  5. DroboElite (2 x Gigabit iSCSI, 1 x diagnostics-only USB 2.0) $3,499

If know which model to get and are looking for a great deal, you can find the Drobo for $335, the Drobo S for $699, the DroboPro for $1,199 and the DroboElite for $3,495. The Drobo FS isn’t listed for sale yet at online retailers.

Details and Thoughts

The Drobo FS is an all-in-one file serving solution — hence the FS moniker. It’s a plug-and-play file sharing system that gives you the performance and self-healing data safety of the Drobo S, in a NAS package. It’s a 5-drive unit with a single Gigabit Ethernet port that supports Jumbo Frames, AFP, and CIFS/SMB, so it’s compatible with OS X, Windows and Linux. It runs on a dual-core processor — the same processor used in the DroboPro. In the Drobo FS, one core does the Drobo BeyondRAID stuff and the second core runs Linux and — this is the neat part — whatever DroboApps you decide to install on it.

It’s simple and safe data sharing, because, just like the Drobo S, it protects against two hard drive failures, not just one. It can also be customized through third-party DroboApps, which can turn it into a remote file sharing solution, a cloud storage solution, a media server or pretty much anything you’d want a NAS device to do.

DroboApps available at launch are:

  • Wake-on-LAN
  • NFS
  • iTunes compatible media server
  • UPnP/DLNA media server
  • BitTorrent client
  • Web/HTTP server
  • FTP server
  • rsync server
  • SSH client
  • DroboApps Admin Utility
  • and more, including this next app…

Data Robotics has partnered with a company called Oxygen Cloud, which has written an app that turns the Drobo FS into a “personal cloud”. No matter where you are in the world, you can map your Drobo FS to your laptop and access the files you’ve placed on it over a WAN connection between you and the Drobo, handled by the OxygenCloud app. You can set varying levels of access and give multiple users the ability to access various file sets. The app promises to be intuitive, easy-to-use, and to provide fine-grained controls for data access. It also provides a gateway for cloud backup to either a second Drobo FS or a cloud storage provider like Amazon, Mozy or RackSpace. The app is still in beta, will be released in May, is going to be free for a single user and will have a licensing cost for multiple users.

Keep in mind though that the quality of the WAN connection depends entirely on the quality of the broadband connection you’re using to connect to the Drobo. If, like me, you’re on a 30 Mbps fiber optic connection, you should have very little latency, but if you’re sitting at a crowded hotspot somewhere, tied into a 2 or 3 Mbps asymmetric connection that only gives you 512-768 Kbps upstream, then you’ll experience a fair share of latency. In other words, you’ll double-click on a file that sits on your remote Drobo, which is on another continent, and it’ll take a bit of time until it’s read and opened by your laptop. Just FYI, so plan accordingly.

On the front and sides, the device is identical to the Drobo S. Of course, I think it’s beautiful. Gorgeous, actually. On the inside, it’s got 5 drive bays, once again, same as the Drobo S.

Only the back is different. Whereas the Drobo S has four interface ports on the back (1 x USB 2.0, 2 x FW 800, 1 x eSATA), plus the power supply connection, the Drobo FS has a single Gigabit Ethernet port and the power supply connection.

I am very glad to see that it has a power switch. I would have liked to see one on the regular Drobo as well. Who knows, perhaps at some point in the future, it’ll happen. I do think it’s important to have a less expensive, entry-level Drobo, so I hope the base model stays in the lineup for some time to come. I’m also glad that, as I predicted when I reviewed the Drobo S, the same design language was used for the Drobo FS. I like this maturation of the original language, and I look forward to seeing it translated in the enclosures for the DroboPro and DroboElite in the future.

For reference purposes, I’m including the indicator chart for the Drobo FS here. It’s also available in the Drobo FS Data Sheet. It’s standard stuff if you’re already used to the Drobo S, but it differs a bit from the regular Drobo, as that model only has single-light indicators which don’t light up in half-half colors.

The Drobo FS formats the drives using the EXT3 file system, but you won’t need to worry about that. You won’t be asked to format the drives or to choose what file system you want for it, because it’s a NAS device, and it can talk to your Mac, PC or Linux box without any problems. You simply put drives into it, it’ll format them by itself, and share the volume onto your network. Easy as pie.

You can have up to 16 shares on the Drobo FS, and up to 32 users connected to it at any one time, though Drobo recommends up to 16 users as the optimal number for proper performance. This should be plenty for busy professionals or small businesses and workgroups, which together with consumers are its intended target users.

Since it’ll work over both wired and wireless networks (once you plug it into a router, naturally), I asked Data Robotics what sort of typical uses people can expect out of it. File sharing, such as documents, presentations, spreadsheets would be no problems at all, and that goes without saying. I asked, for example, if movie playback would be a problem. Not at all, they said, with one disclaimer: if you’re on a WiFi network, make sure it’s a WiFi-N network. This is not a limitation of the Drobo FS, which can offer maximum read performance of around 50-55 MB/sec (with Jumbo Frames), but a limitation of the bandwidth of a WiFi-G network. So that’s really neat!

There is one use they don’t recommend for it though: editing movies. Because it’s a network device, and certain video codecs have very particular performance requirements, official word from them is that people should get a Drobo S or a DroboPro for that. They say, and I quote, “unless a person is very, very familiar with video codecs and their performance requirements, they should not use the Drobo FS for video editing”. Furthermore, and this is very important, “if you want to use Apple’s ProRes (any of their family of 5 codecs), DO NOT try to edit video on a Drobo FS”. So please keep that in mind.

Performance-wise, it’s much faster than a Drobo + DroboShare combo (about 4 times faster), with sustained throughput of 30-40 MB/s. Data Robotics recommends that new buyers check for firmware updates, as they’ve made a number of improvements to the Drobo FS firmware since preparing the units for the first shipments. For comparison purposes, the sustained throughput you get from a Drobo S is 70-90 MB/s when using the eSATA connection.

The Drobo FS gives you about 75% of the performance of a DroboPro, which uses iSCSI. The extra 25% performance is eaten up by the overhead of translating everything for the file sharing protocols (AFP and CIFS/SMB). That’s not a Drobo-only limitation. That’s what happens on any device that has to deal with typical file sharing protocols — they slow things down.

Another neat feature of the Drobo FS is that it will give people the chance to choose a range of time after which the drives will spin down. Those who are concerned with energy use can opt for something like 5-10 minutes, while those who need performance can opt to only spin them down after 30 minutes or 1 hour of inactivity, or more. With the DroboShare, this option wasn’t available, but there was a DroboApp you could install that would periodically write and erase a few bits of data to the drives in order to keep them from spinning down.

Specifications

  • Drives: Accommodates from one to five 3.5” SATA I / SATA II hard drives of any manufacturer, capacity, spindle speed, and/or cache. No carriers or tools required.
  • Interface: 10/100/1000 Ethernet Port
  • Supported data transfer protocols: AFP and CIFS/SMB
  • Dimensions: 5.9” wide x 7.3” tall x 10.3” long
  • Weight: 8 lbs. (without power supply, hard drives or packaging)
  • Includes: Drobo FS, CAT 6 Ethernet cable, external power supply (100v-240v) with U.S. 110v power cord, User Guide and Quick Start Card (printed), Drobo Resource CD with Drobo Dashboard application, help files, and electronic documentation.
  • System Requirements: Apple Mac OS X 10.5.6 or greater; Microsoft Windows 2003, 2008, XP, Vista, Windows 7; Unix/Linux client that can connect via CIFS/SMB

Pricing

Suggested retail prices for the Drobo FS are as follows:

  • Drobo FS, base configuration: $699
  • Drobo FS + 4.5 TB bundle (3 x 1.5 TB drives): $999
  • Drobo FS + 7.5 TB bundle (5 x 1.5 TB drives): $1,149
  • Drobo FS + 10 TB bundle (5 x 2 TB drives): $1,449

Images used courtesy of Data Robotics. The Drobo FS will be available from major retailers such as Amazon, B&H Photo, NewEgg, CDW, Synnex, Bell Micro, Ingram Micro and datarobotics.com.

Storage drops below 7 cents per gigabyte

In January of 2009, I mentioned the price of storage had just dropped below 9 cents per gigabyte. I see now that 2 TB drives are selling below $150 (they’re $140), so it’s time to update my figures. At $139.99 for a 2 TB (2,000 GB) SATA hard drive, that comes out to less than 7 cents per GB. That’s a great deal, and it goes without saying that it’s the lowest price for data storage consumers have ever seen.

Updated 4/19/10: Micro Center is selling 2 TB Seagate SATA drives for $119.99. It’s an in-store special, with a one drive per household limit, but still, that makes it 6 cents per gigabyte. What can I say — expect the price to keep dropping…

On the downside, it seems hard drive manufacturers have hit a ceiling with 2 TB drives. I haven’t heard talk of 3 or 4 TB drives, or anything larger than that. Perhaps I haven’t been keeping up with storage news properly, so if you’ve heard some good news, do let me know!