Part of Drobo's latest line-up of business-focused storage appliances, the B800i takes the company's easy-to-manage BeyondRAID technology and mixes in dedicated iSCSI support plus a new management interface, with impressive results.
As with other Drobo appliances, the B800i comes in a shiny black desktop casing with a single power supply and, for those who want it, an optional rack-mount adapter. A magnetically attached front cover keeps everything tidy, and behind this you'll find eight disk slots.
There's no need for special carriers, the disks just slide into place. Another advantage of the Drobo is its ability to mix and match SATA disks in any capacity (up to 3TB) and spin speed. The temptation is to throw in any old disks you might have lying around, although for maximum performance and capacity, matched disks are advised — Drobo recommends enterprise-class products on this model.
For our tests we used a set of eight identical 500GB, 7,200rpm Western Digital drives, retailing at around £450 for the set, which we simply pushed into place. That done, getting started with the Drobo proved amazingly easy with no in-depth knowledge of disk, iSCSI or SAN technology required.
The Drobo B800i is an 8-bay iSCSI SAN appliance featuring easy-to-use BeyondRAID technology
The first step was to install the Drobo dashboard program. We used a Windows server here, but an ordinary desktop PC or Mac can be employed, connected to the appliance using the supplied USB cable.
The main job was to configure the network interfaces — two Gigabit Ethernet ports are located at the rear of the unit. We opted for fixed IP addresses with the B800i connected to our test network via an Ethernet switch, although direct connectivity to a host system is an option if preferred.
The gloomy Drobo dashboard is a little hard to read at times, but it's easy to use and all you need to manage your storage
We then unplugged the USB lead and did everything else via Ethernet. Not that there was much more to do, other than create a couple of logical volumes on the disks we'd put in the unit. This was remarkably easy as, at no time were we asked to choose a RAID level or anything else particularly technological. Indeed, the only remotely techie question asked was whether to protect against a single drive failure (the default) or two disks failing at the same time.
No RAID expertise is required — the B800i works out how to configure and protect your disks
Thin provisioning is another standard feature, but again Drobo doesn't make a song and dance of it. Rather we were simply left to make our logical volumes as big as we liked. We were limited to 16TB admittedly, but we could have multiple volumes this size — which was far, far more than the available capacity on the disks in the box. The Drobo simply allocates space as it's needed rather than upfront, and will alert you to add or swap to bigger disks should capacity start to become a problem.
Thin provisioning means that, regardless of how much real capacity there is, logical volumes can be up to 16TB in size
Just about everything was taken care of by the Drobo and its dashboard, right down to mounting the volumes we created, the Drobo software automatically configuring the iSCSI initiator on our test Windows server so we didn't have to.
It was all very easy, and the end results were impressive too. We tested performance with Iometer on an HP ProLiant server running Windows Server 2008 R2, recording an average read throughput of 115MB/sec, rising to 150MB/sec when we tweaked the jumbo frames setting on the appliance interface. To put that into context, it's roughly the same level of performance as with one of the disks configured internally on the host server.
It's worth noting that these results were obtained with the appliance connected by just one of its two Gigabit Ethernet ports. Both can be used, but unfortunately not aggregated together to boost throughput, as on some high-end storage appliances. Instead, the idea is to use the dual ports to connect to different networks and/or hosts, to effectively enhance overall throughput — which, for most small-business applications, is just as good.
Should one of the disks fail, the B800i will carry on regardless; optional 2-disk redundancy is available if required
There's also availability to consider, and to check this out we ejected a disk to simulate a drive failure. Not a lot happened: the Drobo simply carried on with hardly any fuss, other than flashing its lights and sending out an alert to make sure it had our attention. We then inserted a new disk and a couple of minutes later we were back to normal with a full set of green lights and no loss of data.
The previously separate Drobo Copy utility has also been integrated into the dashboard, enabling us to schedule backup copies to be taken to other storage media. However this is pretty basic, and for belt-and-braces protection a full backup regime and custom application is still needed. Note also that there's no facility to take snapshots on the B800i or tier data according to application needs, although tiering is available on the more expensive 12-bay Drobo B1200i.
There were a couple of things we'd like to see changed. The dark black and grey dashboard interface, for example, looks smart, but was hard to read at times — and the screenshots in the getting-started manual were virtually indecipherable. The interface was also a little slow to respond, while a little more technical information in the manual wouldn't go amiss. Then there's the price, which is a little above the norm for this kind of small-business storage product.
Overall, though, we were mightily impressed by the B800i, which delivers top-notch IP SAN performance for very little effort. Small businesses requiring fast, flexible and easily managed storage should find that it fits the bill perfectly.