Can a Windows Home Server user find happiness with a Drobo?

Can a Windows Home Server user find happiness with a Drobo?

Summary: When Microsoft killed its Drive Extender terchnology in Windows Home Server, loyal users howled. But one company saw the move as an opportunity. I've been testing a pair of sleek black Drobo boxes for several months now to see how they measure up. Here's my report.

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When Microsoft unexpectedly announced that it was dropping support for its Drive Extender technology in Windows Home Server 2011, it inspired a collective scream from enthusiasts who had stuck with the platform for more than three years, through some decidedly bumpy times.

But at least one company saw Microsoft’s misstep as an opportunity. Data Robotics, Inc. marked the occasion by introducing its Drobo product line to  the Windows Home Server community, complete with a special discount aimed directly at them.

It was a smart move. Drobo CEO Tom Buiocchi describes the company’s mission as “trying to bring elegant ease of use to people who never dreamed they would have terabytes of storage.” That’s very close to the original vision for Windows Home Server.

So, can a Drobo really earn a place in a small office? That’s what I set out to learn for myself with some hands-on testing over the past few months. Here’s my report.

Drobo’s sleek black boxes are specifically designed to do everything that Drive Extender did. You can mix and match hard drives of varying sizes, old and new, to turn four or five drives into a single pool of storage. Data on that virtual volume is protected by a technology called BeyondRAID, whose fundamental premise is that hard drives will fail.

When (not if) that drive failure happens, the pool of storage rebuilds itself on the fly. To increase the amount of available storage, all you have to do is add a new drive or replace an existing one, without having to shut down the entire unit.

I tried one of the first-generation Drobo units four years ago, when they were brand new. That hardware showed tremendous promise in fulfilling the company’s vision, but its performance was marred by painfully high noise levels that made the device unusable in an ordinary office environment. (I wasn’t the only one who thought so, either.)

A lot has changed in the past four years, and when I heard the news about Drive Extender I decided to take a fresh look at Drobo’s offerings. Can Drobo’s technology replace Windows Home Server completely? Or is there room in the home (and home office) for both products?

The folks at Drobo were kind enough to send me one of their current Drobo FS units for review, and I purchased a Drobo S using my own funds. The two products look nearly identical, except for the connectors on the back (more about that in a bit). The elegant design is the same as I remember, as is the jet black finish.

Neither unit was whisper-quiet, but they’re nearly so. The noise level on each of the two units was well within acceptable limits, even when I stuffed each one with five drives of varying sizes and put them to work.

The Drobo FS ($699) is one of four products in the current Drobo Storage for Professionals product lineup. Connect it to a wired network using the Gigabit Ethernet on the back, and then subdivide its pooled storage into shares, with access rights for each share assigned to user accounts on the device. As a server, it can also host apps that handle some of the tasks that people use a Windows Home Server for.

The Drobo S, which costs $100 more, shares a similar chassis but is designed to connect to a PC using USB 3.0, FireWire 800, or eSATA connections. It doesn’t allow you to run any external apps.

Up next, a closer look at how Drobo works.

Page 2: Drobo in action -->

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The Drobo units I tested are nearly identical boxes, roughly the size of a toaster (6” wide, 10” deep, and just over 7” tall). Made from black plastic and metal, with only the Drobo logo to provide a clue as to its purpose, each box looks handsome enough to keep out in the open. At eight pounds, before adding drives, it feels solid and sturdy, and a close inspection reveals an admirable commitment to fit and finish.

The basic idea behind Drobo is simple. As CEO Buiocchi explained it to me: “Think of it as a hard drive that never breaks and never gets full." Based on my testing, that description is mostly accurate. Overall capacity is limited by today’s maximum drive sizes, but you can upgrade over time, as hard drive makers roll out new generations of larger drives.

Over the past few months, I’ve tried a mix of new, high-capacity drives and older, smaller models pulled from the spares shelf in my office. Conclusion: it is ridiculously easy to expand the storage pool in a Drobo. To add or remove drives, pull off the front cover, which is attached with magnets. With the cover out of the way, you can see all drive bays—five in this case.

To add a SATA drive, slide it firmly into the bay (no drive caddies required) until it snaps into place. To remove a drive, push the release lever to the left; that disconnects the SATA connectors and pushes the drive out of the slot far enough for you to get a grip on it.

Here's what my setup looks like:

I initially set up each Drobo with a pair of drives, added drives until all five bays were full, and then started pulling out smaller drives and swapping in larger ones. As I added and swapped drives, the Drobo just kept running.

The only user interface on the box itself is a light to the right of each installed drive and a row of lights along the bottom.  A green light next to a drive means the drive is working properly, red indicates a problem, and flashing green and yellow lights indicate that the Drobo software is busy configuring the storage pool and duplicating data (for protection) after you add or remove a drive.

The Drobo is specifically designed for hot swapping, so you don’t need to power down to add or remove a drive. The process of rearranging data can take several hours, depending on drive sizes, but I never lost network access to data files while the lights were flashing.

And as if to prove the “Drives will fail” mantra, during the course of testing I had one drive fail completely. That gave me a real-world opportunity to test Drobo’s resiliency. I didn’t lose any data, but I wasn’t able to access the rest of the volume until I physically pulled the faulty drive out of the Drobo and restarted. Adding a new drive in the now-empty slot, by contrast, made the new storage available immediately.

To set up the Drobo initially and to perform subsequent management tasks, you use a lightweight software utility called the Drobo Dashboard.

On the Drobo FS, you use the Dashboard to create user accounts, starting with an Administrator account. Then you create shares and assign access rights to those shares. I connected the Drobo FS to a gigabit switch in my office.

On the Drobo S, you create volumes that appear as drive letters on the locally attached PC. You can connect using eSATA, Firewire, or USB 3.0 (in a nice touch, all three cables are included). For my testing, I’ve been using a USB 3.0 connection courtesy of a PCI Express add-in card; the host machine is a three-year old Dell running Windows Server 2008 R2.

So, what do I think of the new and improved Drobo?

Page 3: The verdict -->

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If all you need is a common pool of network storage, the Drobo FS is an excellent choice. It’s considerably more expensive than generic network attached storage (NAS) devices. But in my experience the extra cost is well worth it for the quality of the hardware product and its absolute ease of use. If you run an agency where a handful of creative types need fast and easy shared access to images and big document files, it’s a perfect fit.

I was much less impressed with the selection of apps available for installation on a Drobo FS from the DroboApps page. I suppose some people might want to run an Apache server or set up FTP access to the Drobo hardware, but doing so requires a fair amount of Linux experience. If you’ve got the chops for that, you probably want to set up a dedicated server.

A Drobo FS is especially useful in cross-platform environments. You can install clients for Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux, and the drive can be configured to serve as a Time Machine target for any Macs that might be on your network.

I looked for a DroboApp that offered backup capabilities, but there are none. Third-party software can fill in the gap, but it comes at a significant cost. I tried Altaro’s Oops! Backup, which worked fine with the Drobo. But it fell short of Windows Home Server’s superb backup capabilities. Licensing Oops! Backup for 10 PCs costs about $300, and it does nothing to make efficient use of space on the server. That’s one of the biggest strengths of Windows Home Server, which is able to detect duplicated files and store just a single instance of each one.

The biggest surprise turned out to be how well the Drobo S works with Windows Home Server 2011. For my tests, I used a spare PC with a single internal hard disk to serve as the system drive. I used the Drobo S (with four individual hard disks) as a second Home Server drive and pointed all the shared folders and computer backups to that location. The effect was just the same as if Drive Extender had never left the building.

Windows Home Server doesn't see the actual capacity of the drive. It thinks I have 16 terabytes of space available.

The Drobo Dashboard knows better, of course:

The advantage of that subterfuge is that I can add and swap drives on the Drobo and the Windows Home Server is never aware that anything has changed.

In all my tests, I found performance to be excellent. Drobo’s magic happens in the background and didn’t have a noticeable impact on file transfer times.

One quirk in the way the Drobo handles drives is worth calling out. Data redundancy comes at a price that is essentially equal to the largest drive in your array. Thus, if you use three drives—two at 1TB and another at 2TB—you’ll be able to store only 1.81 TB of data. In that configuration, the largest drive will have half its space “reserved for expansion.”

After a few months of use, I’m returning the Drobo FS review unit, but you’ll have to pry the Drobo S from my cold dead fingers. And I really hope the Drobo and Windows Server teams can put their heads together. If they can figure out a way to incorporate Windows Home Server and Small Business Server directly into the Drobo hardware, the result would be much greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Topics: Windows, Data Management, Hardware, Operating Systems, Servers, Software, Storage

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47 comments
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  • Media Use

    I use my WHS for 3 things: backup, file storage and streaming videos/music to my Xbox 360. Thanks for testing the first 2 of those. Any tests using the FS for use on the 360? I've been very close in getting either the FS or a Synology box to replace my (aging) WHS box.

    Thanks again for the review.
    WoW&gt;Work
    • Used with a 360, works great

      @awindle@...

      The Xbox has no idea that it's anything other than a regular hard drive.
      Ed Bott
      • RE: Can a Windows Home Server user find happiness with a Drobo?

        @Ed Bott There is a DroboApp to stream Media files and even an iTunes server and both work great.
        pjalm
    • RE: Can a Windows Home Server user find happiness with a Drobo?

      @awindle@...

      Get a Synology and you won't regret it.
      Alan Smithie
      • RE: Can a Windows Home Server user find happiness with a Drobo?

        @Alan Smithie I've looked at Synology. They seem to have better performance, but it didn't appear that you could easily expand the storage space without major hassles. Drobo seems to be alone in making it easy to add storage space.
        zackers
    • RE: Can a Windows Home Server user find happiness with a Drobo?

      @awindle@...

      MIne too... except PS3 and Popcorn c-200.

      I've ported mine down to a d510 atom board, 4 sata, Laptop psu and ITX mini psu thingy. I'd be keen to see the power use of the drobo as I'm more interested in retaining my current whs1 low power use, than anything hungry and loud. 24/7 eats a lot of power and cash. I'm probably sitting at under 50watts, many out there burn that in their processor alone.
      johnmckay
    • RE: Can a Windows Home Server user find happiness with a Drobo?

      Can a Windows FAIL Home Server ever find happiness? Nope!
      james347
  • Not sure about WHS happiness, but I don't like the look of this!

    The big problem with any proprietory NAS box is this:

    You replace one single point of failure (hard disk) with another (the box itself).

    If the Drobo box itself fails but the disks inside are still OK, can I just remove them and slave them to any handy Windows or Linux box to get at my data?

    I bet you can't, but please prove me wrong if you can!

    If I am worried enough about my data security to spend $699 on a Drobo, they must give me an easy solution to this problem. Do they?

    What file system does it run? Something 'normal'.

    Or must I fork out another $699, or wait a few weeks while they process my warranty claim?

    The problem is made worse in the case of Drobo, as you report difficulty in creating backups.
    I don't want to spend $300 on backup software. I just want to attach (USB or eSATA) another HDD and set up an RSYNC job. Will the Drobo OS allow me to do this?

    Probably not, as Drobo, like all proprietory NAS boxes, almost certainly runs some highly-crafted and undocumented Linux variant.

    So that's a total of $999 (+ hard disk costs?) on a NAS box that runs some wierd Linux version and file system, and doesn't protect me from a box failure (as opposed to a hard disk failure). No thanks!

    I'd be much better off building my own Ubuntu server using an old PC and LVM for disk expansion.

    Point of information:
    You say "The Drobo S, which costs $100 more, shares a similar chassis but is designed to connect to a PC using USB 3.0, FireWire 800, or eSATA connections."
    Why would I want to do this? There's no ethernet connectivity?
    MissouriMan
    • If you click the link...

      @MissouriMan <br><br>...you will see that one of the DroboApps is an RSync client.

      As for your other question, I attached the Drobo S to a Windows Server box. Its contents are shared via the server itself. You could do the same with a Linux server if you're allergic to Microsoft products.
      Ed Bott
    • RE: Can a Windows Home Server user find happiness with a Drobo?

      @MissouriMan anyone that can claim "I'd be much better off building my own Ubuntu server using an old PC and LVM for disk expansion." Is not the target customer for a Drobo, IMO. A Drobo is for the rest of the population that has no idea about Ubuntu server or FreeNas; or for busy small businesses that don't want to hire a consultant to rebuild damaged RAID arrays at 120$ an hour.
      Gritztastic
      • RE: Can a Windows Home Server user find happiness with a Drobo?

        @Gritztastic
        I will certainly hold up my hand to not being a target customer for a Drobo or for WHS.

        However, someone needs to make it clear to "the rest of the population" and "busy small businesses" that storing their data inside one of these boxes does not guarantee it will be safe.

        Sure it will be protected against disk failure, but not against failure of the box. Do these IT innocents realise this?
        MissouriMan
      • RE: Can a Windows Home Server user find happiness with a Drobo?

        @Gritztastic No storage device or enclosure is immune from hardware failure, and there are two types of hard drives-dead and dying. Knowing this, it would be prudent to purchase doubles of any storage solution.

        For the IT innocents, pulling the drives from Drobo A and placing them in the same order into the replacement Drobo B is far easier, in my experience, than trying to repair/rebuild/replace a RAID.

        Sure, parts cost is higher on a Drobo than a basic WHS/NAS, but labor/time is often a much bigger factor- an experienced IT consultant costs about a Drobo and a half per day, eating up any savings on the hardware end.
        Gritztastic
    • RE: Can a Windows Home Server user find happiness with a Drobo?

      @MissouriMan If the Drobo box fails you can replace it with the same model, plug your drives back in the same order and it will startup just fine. I had this happen once in the 5 years I had mine.
      pjalm
      • RE: Can a Windows Home Server user find happiness with a Drobo?

        As @pjalm said, in addition, you don't even have to plug the drives back in the same order. You can place the drives into any other same model Drobo, in Any order, and recover all your data.
        DrGerm
    • RE: Can a Windows Home Server user find happiness with a Drobo?

      @MissouriMan

      If you are going to build your own server appliance, wouldn't it be better to use Debian or Slackware for the server?

      Ubuntu isn't known for stability. Like Fedora, they are too much on the bleeding edge. A storage appliance is best if VERY stable. Mr. Bott said his has run for years.
      YetAnotherBob
  • The problem is the business model, not technical

    "I really hope the Drobo and Windows Server teams can put their heads together. If they can figure out a way to incorporate Windows Home Server and Small Business Server directly into the Drobo hardware, the result would be much greater than the sum of the individual parts."
    There is no real difficulty figuring out either the software or the hardware problems. DROBO have simply devised a clever implementation of RAID 5 following the invention of RAID in 1988 and are now monetising it via hardware. Microsoft engineers would have no trouble porting ZFS, or developing something better. However their management have proved inept at short term measures (VAIL) because a proper solution would cannibalise their enterprise storage market. Google had no problem: they designed an efficient architecture on commodity components ... because they were paying the bill.

    The problem for the vendors is how little can be released to keep apathetic consumers and corporate sheep happy while the gravy train continues to roll.
    The ease with which Ed bolted a DROBO onto WHS ... producing a chimera of two competing technologies hamstrung by the vendors' business models ... shows how simple the task would be for any efficient (if poorer) world class organisation.

    No, this is a revenue problem, not a technology problem.

    [I went for the new HP Microserver, foregoing usability for cost, but it is still only an intermediate option awaiting a proper solution.]
    jacksonjohn
    • Of course. It comes down to management

      @johnfenjackson@...
      and not the fact that what you are talking about are two different technologies and implimentations.

      Having read your response, I disagree completely.
      It appears your conclussions are incorrect.
      :|
      Tim Cook
      • RE: Can a Windows Home Server user find happiness with a Drobo?

        @Mister Spock

        The technology doesn't matter. Following a standardized procedure does. The use of Linux in the server takes advantage of the stability of the Linux kernal. Samba will allow the server to interoperate with Windows. As Ed Bott pointed out, to the Windows client, it will just look like another hard drive. It sounds like this system also uses the ability to hot swap the disks. It wouldn't be hard for a 'Linux guru" (as Mr. Bott says) to arrange for the disks to be encrypted in the unit also. The technologies are really just black boxes to each other. It is a true client server setup. The technologies in each box just don't matter, as long as they each know how to speak to each other.
        YetAnotherBob
    • RE: Can a Windows Home Server user find happiness with a Drobo?

      @johnfenjackson@...

      I don't think drobo does RAID5 at all...I could never get anythin like RAID 5 storage efficiency out of one. But I never had 5 of the same size drives in it, maybe that would have helped?
      jreuter
  • I wonder if something like this WHS add-in would suffice

    As opposed to spending an extra 699 dollars for this unit, as sufficient as it appears.

    http://www.drivebender.com/
    Tim Cook