Some while back, Aneel Bhusri, co-CEO Workday and board member at Drobo told me: "We'll never have enough storage." He is 100 per cent right. I have storage devices hanging off every system at home and in the office. Adding it all up, we have 12TB of storage. When I go on the road I usually take a 500GB G-Tech device but that failed just as I was leaving on a week long trip. Last week I found that initial video storage on my MacBook Pro while on the road filled my secondary 256GB SSD which is only used for files of one kind or another.
Enter the Drobo Mini
Enter the Thunderbolt and USB 3 enabled Drobo Mini which started shipping on October 26th at a sticker price of $649. The device can take up to 16TB of HDD in a 4x4GB array plus an mSATA SSD for extra speed. [Disclosure: Drobo gave me a Mini plus four Seagate Momentus 750GB disks for test and feedback purposes.] In offering Thunderbolt connectivity, Drobo is clearly going after the Apple market.
The first thing to note is that the Mini is not a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device but a Direct Attached Storage (DAS) unit. Even so, Drobo provides users with the option to set the device up for either single or dual redundancy using its BeyondRaid technology. When it comes to video, I want dual redundancy because unlike written material which can be recreated, lost video or audio is lost forever.
The Mini is a diminuitive device, beautifully packaged. At seven inches square and two inches tall, the Mini is about as small as you could get and still pack in four 2.5 inch drives. The body is made from super strong carbon fiber and encased in a rubberised material that adds to the sense of quality and strength.
Setting up the Mini is as simple as inserting your chosen HDD/SSDs into the carrierless drive bays, plugging it into a power supply (in keeping with mobile it works anywhere on any 110-240v power supply), attaching to your machine (you can use Thunderbolt or USB 3), downloading and then firing up the Drobo Dashboard and off you go. It is worth noting that the Mini will work off portable battery packs for those occasions where you have no access to mains electricity.
At this point you need to make some decisions. Do you want to use Mini as a Time Machine, a backup device using something like CrashPlan, temporary storage or any combination of the above? While I appreciate Time Machine for its simplicity, it's not really what I need when on the road. What I really want is to use the Drobo as primary storage for later offloading to a NAS and/or cloud storage.
For testing purposes, I initially set up the Mini to act as a Time Machine using single redundancy. In total, I have 384GB on SSDs. As configured with the four HDDs in place, this gives me more than enough headroom. I cannot comment on performance with the mSATA drive in place but it struck me that the intial time Machine backup using Thunderbolt was reasonably nippy. I wouldn't say it was blindingly fast but certainly a LOT quicker than if I had been using USB.
Setting up for dual redundancy is a slooooow process. You are going to be waiting hours before the Mini's software completes the data protection cycle. I wasn't overly concerned because the outcome was more important to me than waiting for a set of drives to do their RAID thing.
Just for giggles, I ran Blackmagic Design's Disk Speed Test. I say just for giggles because I tend to find that these kinds of test are rarely more than marginally useful. However, the results do give an indication of the difference between running direct on SSDs and HDDs
I don't think the Mini should be seen as a device that can be used for production workflow. The data transfer speeds using conventional HDDs with Thunderbolt are too slow when compared with the performance I can get from SSDs. I could have amp'd performance with enterprise class HDDs but if you want that option then you're looking at least doubling up on HDD investments.
Making these choices creates an interesting conundrum. How do I establish a workflow that keeps video production productive while ensuring that incoming video is regularly transferred off the cameras and staged somewhere that wont gobble up space on the production machine's SSDs?
Back in 2010, Chase Jarvis provided a great outline that provides a solid start for anyone thinking about video production workflow and storage. It serves as the set of guiding principles under which I operate. Now that the Mini is part of that workflow, I need to figure out how that impacts what I have been doing, Back to the Mini.
Ok - so you have the Mini running, you've decided on your backup strategy. Now what? The short answer is forget about it and let the Mini do its thing in background. Drobo has made backup so easy that even the most technophobe person can use it. The machine is very quiet and other than occasionally glancing at the blue and green lights as they flash on and off, there's nothing much to do. Drobo's software warns you when you're running out of disk space through its flashing light system. Yes - red does mean danger, while yellow means you need to do something. Apart from the current 16TB limit, which is more than enough for me, the options to flexibly expand the system are up to you. Drobo allows you to mix and match drives without manual configuration. Want to take out a 750GB drive and replace with 1TB? No problem. Use an SSD instead of HDD? Again, no problem. It is things like this that make the Drobo system not only flexible but expandable at the pace you operate.
If the power supply fails then again, no problem. The Mini has an internal battery that ensures the hardware can gracefully write to non volatile disk without your worrying about lost or corrupt data. I tested this by yanking the plug out of the wall and then going back several hours later to see what would happen. Blammo - everything picked up from where it was and the Mini carried on as if nothing had happened.
Side note: cloud storage is rapidly becoming my storage place of last resort in the sense that if all else fails locally, then at least 'stuff' is somewhere in the cloud.
It has only been a few days but so far I am really liking this device much more than I expected. I have seen plenty of rave reviews of other Drobo devices. I have also seen some where commenters have been disparaging, especially when it comes to performance and recovery. I've even seen some comments where people complain about the spartan interface. Spartan is good - less to go wrong. As always with these things, you must have the right use case for it to make sense. I'd also say that with Drobo, you have to think differently as well.
I have established RAID 6 dual redundancy and will only use this device as initial 'on the road' storage. Most of the gigs I do are 2-4 day events with video shot in short bursts. When I come off a shoot I'm usually looking at something around three or four hours' total shoot time but multiplied up by three cameras. So the worst case scenario is something like 12 hours of footage. My problem has been in ensuring that each shoot is correctly collated and backed up as we go. That also includes separate audio files. If my experience to date is anything to go by then the Mini should help ease that problem considerably.
Is the Mini worth $649 plus the cost of drives - say a total investment of around $1,000? If you shoot video (or stills for that matter) then the answer is 'yes.' As I said earlier, you can't replicate that type of media so a loss is a loss.