First look: Drobo 8D Thunderbolt 3 direct-attached RAID array

It's bigger, faster, and has more capacity than any previous direct-attached Drobo. But it's the first since the company was bought out by StorCentric. Is this new box still really a Drobo? Read and find out.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

That's one of my well-used 5Ds on top, and the new Drobo 8D on the bottom.

I've used one Drobo or another since the first device came out in 2007. I bought the very first generation Drobo. It was slow, but I found the ease of use and reliability a big win. When the much faster Drobo 5D was released, I bought two: one to hook up to my desktop and one to hook up to another machine for backup.

What makes a Drobo a Drobo?

Drobo sells storage arrays, RAID devices that are astonishingly easy to manage. They are RAID devices that require absolutely no understanding of RAID to operate. You slide drives in. If the lights are green, all is good. If there's a red light, the drive is bad. Slide it out and slide in a new one. That's it.

Drobo devices also show array capacity with a series of blue lights. As your array fills up, more lights illuminate. Between the drive status lights and the array capacity lights, you can tell your entire storage status with a glance.

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Drobo sells two classes of storage arrays: direct-attached and network-attached (NAS). I have yet to find a better direct-attached storage product, but their NAS product didn't rate quite as highly in my NAS Wars evaluation.

The selection of apps was weak and Drobo was the only NAS product that needed to be managed with an application you had to install locally, rather than using a browser. Even so, the 5N2 Drobo NAS product rated best-of-show for RAID performance and reliability. It just fell short on the usual NAS add-on features.

For years, I've used the direct-attached 5D Drobo with my 2013 iMac. I use a very large managed library of art and photo assets to create my presentations. I also use it for the videos I'm producing (and all their media assets). It also serves as the storage tank for all my virtual machine images (of which there are many).

The 5D was quite versatile. It supported Thunderbolt 2 as well as USB 3.0 and came with five drive bays. I equipped all five bays with 7200RPM drives and went to work. On the three or four occasions I experienced drive failures (mostly as a result of an office move), replacing the drive and repairing the RAID was easy and flawless.

Pure Drobo

Last month, Drobo introduced the 8D. Its the first new box since Drobo was acquired by StorCentric. Acquisitions often change the character of products to be more in line with those of the acquiring company. In light of that, I was very curious whether all the signature Drobo goodness would remain, or if this was going to be a Drobo in name only.

To be honest, I was really quite relieved. Drobo has a special way of handling RAID, and I was hoping that hadn't been nerfed by the StorCentric acquisition. It decidedly was not. The 8D is pure Drobo.

Thunderbolt 3 and eight bays

The 5D has five drive bays, and can be configured up to 64TB. But who can live with only 64TB? I mean, seriously.

As you might imagine, if the 5D supports five bays, the 8D supports eight bays. In addition, the 8D supports volume sizes up to 128TB and a total capacity of up to 256TB.

The 8D also has SSD support, but it's so new I've had some difficulty getting details on exactly what drives and capacities are supported. In fact, the only complaint I had was that many of the Drobo site's web links for the new 8D went to spec sheets for other products. When I called Drobo support yesterday for clarification, they were very helpful, if a bit surprised at the misdirected links. Today, those links have been fixed.

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Drobo sent me the 8D and I set it up over the weekend. Right now, I'm using just 7200RPM spinning platters in it, but I'll be adding SSDs over time, particularly to take advantage of the unit's data-aware tiering capabilities. I'll report on that once I've had some time with it.

The final big appeal of the 8D interface is Thunderbolt 3. While that pretty much limits it to being a Mac peripheral, it also provides a very high upper-end in terms of data movement speed. Thunderbolt 3 is twice the speed of Thunderbolt 2, four times the speed of USB C (also known as USB 3.1), and a whopping eight times faster than USB 3. I was quite excited to hook up the 8D to my Mac mini, which also has Thunderbolt 3.

Thunderbolt 3 is waaaay faaaaaaast. Unfortunately, spinning physical platters in 7200RPM hard drives are not.

Spinning platters

Even though most computers are now equipped with SSD, storage arrays are often still filled with hard drives. The reason is simple: they have a huge price advantage when it comes to capacity. Hard drives deliver four to five times the capacity for the same price as SSDs. Of course, SSDs are way faster... SATA-based SSDs can be ten times faster than hard drives, and internal, bus-based SSDs are light years faster.

Once you start adding SSD arrays, the speed of Thunderbolt 3 becomes compelling. But, I'll be honest, I didn't expect to gain any speed on my hard drive array. But I did.

It wasn't huge, but it was nice. I gained roughly a 13 percent performance increase on write speed, and a very nice 47 percent speed boost on reads. Given that those hard drives have been sitting in that 5D box for years, it's nice to get any improvement -- especially one that requires so little effort.

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Moving the array of drives from the 5D to the 8D was also insanely simple. I merely pulled the drives out of the 5D and slid them into the 8D. They were ready to use almost instantly.

The only disadvantage of this is that their max volume size is much smaller than it would be for newly formatted drives in the higher-capacity 8D. When I get a chance, I'll throw in some fresh drives, create a brand new volume, and move my data over. That will give my new volume a lot more space to grow.

How to decide

So, should you rush out and get a Drobo 8D? Well that depends. Here's a quick decision breakout that might help:

If you don't have a Mac: You probably won't want the 8D unless you've already got a Thunderbolt 3 interface in your 'puter.

If you want tons of expansion and gobs of storage: Oh, yeah. Definitely. But remember that this is directly-attached. This isn't for a workgroup. This is for you, and you alone (well, unless you share files on your machine).

If you have an 5D and need to expand: Definitely. But consider adding all new hard drives and moving your data across, rather than just migrating the existing drives. You'll get much more capacity in the long run.

If you have a 5D, are nearly at capacity, and want dual-drive redundancy: With only five bays, it's difficult to dedicate two drives to redundancy and disaster recovery. With eight bays, you can use two for fail-over (which means two drives can fail at once) and still have six bays for storage.

If physical footprint and desk space is an issue: Maybe not. This is a big box. It's substantially bigger than the traditional Drobo and even bigger than some 8-bay NAS boxes.

If you want to go all SSD: That's an interesting one. All the drive bays are based on the 3.5-inch hard drive form factor, so you'll need to get some frames. But the 8D can certainly handle the speed requirements. On the other hand, it also might be interesting to see if Drobo introduces a modern, 8-bay version of its now discontinued Drobo Mini.

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At $1,299 (or $162 per bay), the Drobo 8D (without disks) is more expensive, per bay, than its smaller 5D3 sibling. It's also very much more expensive, at $162 vs $119 per bay, than the Synology 1817+, the top-rated NAS of our NAS shoot-out.

But, as I said earlier, if you want direct attached storage and want a large RAID array, you can't go wrong with Drobo products. Yes, I did get the 8D in as a review unit, but I've been buying Drobos for almost a decade. The Drobo 8D is clearly in the lineage of the earlier devices, which makes it a win.

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