Drobo Elite - Ready For The Server Room If Not The Data Center

Ever since Data Robotics came out with the Drobo it's been the darling of some in the storage blogosphere. While I found the original 4-slot Drobo cute, I didn't understand why serious storage guys like Curtis Preston and my friend Stephen Foskett were so excited about a consumer product. The Drobo Pro, an 8-port DAS array with an iSCSI interface didn't make any more sense. The new Drobo Elite on the other hand seems like a great first SAN array for the SMB market.

Howard Marks

November 24, 2009

3 Min Read
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Ever since Data Robotics came out with the Drobo it's been the darling of some in the storage blogosphere. While I found the original 4-slot Drobo cute, I didn't understand why serious storage guys like Curtis Preston and my friend Stephen Foskett were so excited about a consumer product. The Drobo Pro, an 8-port DAS array with an iSCSI interface didn't make any more sense. The new Drobo Elite on the other hand seems like a great first SAN array for the SMB market.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I fell into the trap of thinking there wasn't much real technology behind Drobo's pretty face. The package, with its tray-free hot swap drives and LEDs that indicate system status, drive status and even system utilization, is actually wrapped around a set of data protection features that combine some of the best ideas from leading edge higher end storage system that Data Robotics calls Beyond RAID.

The most visible of these feature is the ability to fully utilize drives of different sizes. When you set up a Drobo, you specify single or dual drive redundancy, if you want to be protected against one or two drive failures. By treating all the available disk space as a single pool a 5-drive Drobo S distributes data and parity data across all the drives. I'm sure if you had 40GB drives and a 2TB drive this system would break down, but for reasonable combinations the Drobo just figures out where to stick data to meet your protection level. The only other system I know that can do RAID on different size drives efficiently is Symantec's Storage Foundation, and it's not as efficient as Drobo.

While you can think of dual redundancy as being a double parity scheme like RAID-6 if there's only space on three drives, Drobo will use it for a triple mirror.  It will also mirror or triple mirror when data is coming in too fast for parity or double parity and re-stripe the data later.  Similarly when you swap out a drive for a larger one, which you can do at any time, the extra space is available pretty much immediately and the system will re-stripe later.

Like Atraro's and Xiotech's self healing arrays, Drobo scrubs drives in the background, marking sectors as bad. It also distributes hot-spare space across all its drives, which speeds up rebuilds. In fact, Drobo just uses its free space as spare space, so an 8-drive Drobo Elite that's less than 85 percent full has a hot spare without dedicating space to one.  The 8-drive Drobo Elite has 2Gb Ethernet ports for iSCSI connectivity and can support up to 255 thinly provisioned volumes. You can even rack mount it. Unlike most thin provisioning systems, it's file system aware for NTFS, VMFS, EXT3 and HFS+, which allows it to return space from deleted files to the free pool. Given how NTFS uses free space before overwriting deleted files over time, this can make a big difference on Windows servers.

With an MSRP of just $3500 (and under $6,000 with 8 2TB drives for 12TB of usable space), the Drobo Elite could be the right answer for many SMBs. Buy it full of 500GB drives and upgrade one at a time when you need space. Of course performance is an open question. Data Robotics claims it does 150-170MB/s throughput, but IOPS are where the rubber meets the road.  I'm hoping to get one in the lab soon.

Disclaimer:  I'm doing work for Symantec.  I hope they don't notice I said a Drobo can something better than Storage Foundation.  Please don't tell.

About the Author(s)

Howard Marks

Network Computing Blogger

Howard Marks</strong>&nbsp;is founder and chief scientist at Deepstorage LLC, a storage consultancy and independent test lab based in Santa Fe, N.M. and concentrating on storage and data center networking. In more than 25 years of consulting, Marks has designed and implemented storage systems, networks, management systems and Internet strategies at organizations including American Express, J.P. Morgan, Borden Foods, U.S. Tobacco, BBDO Worldwide, Foxwoods Resort Casino and the State University of New York at Purchase. The testing at DeepStorage Labs is informed by that real world experience.</p><p>He has been a frequent contributor to <em>Network Computing</em>&nbsp;and&nbsp;<em>InformationWeek</em>&nbsp;since 1999 and a speaker at industry conferences including Comnet, PC Expo, Interop and Microsoft's TechEd since 1990. He is the author of&nbsp;<em>Networking Windows</em>&nbsp;and co-author of&nbsp;<em>Windows NT Unleashed</em>&nbsp;(Sams).</p><p>He is co-host, with Ray Lucchesi of the monthly Greybeards on Storage podcast where the voices of experience discuss the latest issues in the storage world with industry leaders.&nbsp; You can find the podcast at: http://www.deepstorage.net/NEW/GBoS

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