SlashGear Review: Data Robotics Drobo intelligent data robot

I'm obsessed with data backups and willing to scarify my sleeping time just to get my crucial data backed up. Even with this kind of mentality, I still worry about data-loss due to backup corruption caused by backup drive failure. Data redundancy has been my main priority aside from doing the actual backup itself, and I've been using RAID technology for that.

However, RAID requires me to have drives with the same capacities and I don't think drive manufacturers will continue to produce the same capacity models for the next four to seven years. It looked like I would end up buying a brace of new drives every few years; then came my saviour named Drobo, the data robot from Data Robotics.

Drobo gives users the ability to chain up to four SATA hard drives, irregardless of their individual size, into one USB-attached backup box. No rails, caddies or cases are needed; each gets slotted in one at a time (waiting for Drobo to indicate it's ready via flashing LEDs) and by the end you've got one single chunk of drive-failure-protected storage. It's a simplicity that's continued through general use of Drobo; a "petrol gauge" of lights show you how much space remains, red LEDs by each drive indicate an error requiring attention or replacement, and yellow LEDs show which could do with upgrading. Rather than demanding you dig out the manual there's a guide to the light codes on the inside of the front cover.

Speed is limited to the 480Mbps transfer rate of a USB 2.0 connection; anything you transfer across is automatically mirrored through the drives, and I noticed no difference in data rate whether it was idle or busy mirroring. As with RAID, you won't get the full capacity of each hard-drive inside: space is calculated as the maximum available taking into account the smallest drive present. So if you had a couple of 250GB drives and added a 1TB unit, you'd have a maximum of 500GB storage after Drobo had reserved its failure protection allowance; that way, should the 1TB drive subsequently die there's space for the full 500GB of data on the two remaining drives.

Data Robotics include Mac and Windows compatible software which will let you monitor what Drobo is doing, but on my test (Mac) system it seemed to have trouble correctly identifying how much space was available. Apparently I had 2TB of space, despite not having 2TB-worth of drives inside! Assuming the Drobo isn't actually magic, I think removing and reinserting the disks would have solved it, since it automatically formats, checks data integrity and defragments upon initial installation.

It's the little conveniences which make Drobo so much more pleasant to use than other backup drives. Power-saving tweaks – such as the unit automatically shutting down when the USB cable is unplugged – make sense considering how energy hungry drives can be even when idle, while being able to use up any spare drive capacity (it'll even work with one drive, albeit with no data protection) offsets the initial investment.

And so to price. Storage gets continuously cheaper, making the $499 purchase price of the Drobo (and that's without any drives) look moderately obsessive. Of course, you're paying for the intelligent (or, as Data Robotics would have it, "robot") data distribution and the ability to instantly recover from drive failure or removal. If maximum drive for your dollar is what's most important then a single big USB drive might look more tempting, but weigh that up against the value of the data stored on it and what you'd do should it fail.

Data Robotics are currently working on the next-gen version of Drobo, which should have such additions as FireWire and compatibility with more than NTFS and HFS+ formatting, but with a single platform system and where USB 2.0 is the common interface I'd have little issue recommending Drobo to anybody concerned with data security. Yes, it could get expensive outfitting it with drives at the larger end of the spectrum, and yes I'd like to see a gigabit ethernet port for network connectivity, but the level of simplicity it brings to backups make Drobo SlashGear recommended.


Many thanks to Data Robotics for providing the Drobo unit for review.