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Backing up your photographs and more – Why I don’t recommend a Drobo

September 30th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments
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Whenever I am hear about storage solutions for photographers, I frequently hear the praises of Drobos, and while I do think they can serve a purpose, I can’t bring myself to recommend them. There is a common phrase among storage/backup architects that usually goes something like, “If it’s not in three places, it doesn’t exist”.  Getting that third place, and even the second place will eventually prove to be expensive, time consuming and a little too cumbersome using Drobos.

The Drobo way

While technology is changing rapidly, the largest single hard drive that we can currently use in an external storage device is 2TB. 3TB and larger drives are already showing up, but they aren’t there yet.  Starting out with a single drive in a Drobo doesn’t make much sense, so say you start out with two 2TB drives. This gives you 1.8TB of available “protected” space. To backup this device, you can purchase two 2TB external drives which can act as the second and third “places”. Sync all three drives using your favorite sync tool, and take one of those small 2TB drive enclosures to your office, a friend’s house, mom and dad’s place, anywhere but in the same physical location. So far so good. But as soon as you write something to the Drobo, it gets sync’d to the one other drive you still have at the same physical location. The data on old one is “stale”. So, once a month, week, daily, the shorter the better, you take the external drive to the other location, and bring back the other back and let it sync with the Drobo.

As soon as you start using one of the more talked about capabilities of the Drobo, which is the ability of it to dynamically expand, and add in that third 2TB drive, things change things drastically. Now you have 3.6TB of usable space, and if the contents exceed 2TB (the reason you expanded it), no longer fit on a single external, easily portable drive.  You could get a second and third Drobo, put in another three 2TB drives in both, and sync everything between them, but now you are carrying a Drobo around. If you max out a 4 bay drobo, you are looking a 5.5TB of usable space.

Examining the costs of all this using the prices (rounded off to nearest dollar) listed on Amazon, without tax or shipping and handling, as of the date of this post:

Qty Description Each Extended Price
1 Data Robotics Drobo 4-Bay USB 2.0/FireWire 800 SATA Storage Array DR04DD10 $341 $341
2 Western Digital 2 TB Caviar Green Bulk/OEM Desktop Hard Drives WD20EARS $99 $198
2 USB 2.0+ Firewire 1394 Combo Enclosure for 3.5-inch SATA Hard Drive up to 2.0 TB $34
2 Western Digital 2 TB Caviar Green Bulk/OEM Desktop Hard Drives WD20EARS $99 $268 (when purchased together)
Total:
$807

2TB’s in 3 places using a Drobo as one of them is $807.  Taking that to the max, using all Drobos would then be:

Qty Description Each Extended Price
3 Data Robotics Drobo 4-Bay USB 2.0/FireWire 800 SATA Storage Array DR04DD10 $341 $1,023
12 Western Digital 2 TB Caviar Green Bulk/OEM Desktop Hard Drives WD20EARS $99 $1,188
Total:
$2,211

5.5TB of data, in three places costs $2,211.

What do I use and currently recommend instead?

For a start, a hardware based RAID 1 solution.  Yes, software RAID can work nicely, but I am not a fan, so I am going to limit this post to solutions that are hardware based only, to make the comparison to the Drobo a little more “fair”.

The Newer Technology Guardian MAXimus with two 2TB drives in a RAID 1 configuration.

Qty Description Each Extended Price
1 Newer Technology Guardian MAXimus Case only $130 $130
2 Western Digital 2 TB Caviar Green Bulk/OEM Desktop Hard Drives WD20EARS $99 $198
2 USB 2.0+ Firewire 1394 Combo Enclosure for 3.5-inch SATA Hard Drive up to 2.0 TB $34
2 Western Digital 2 TB Caviar Green Bulk/OEM Desktop Hard Drives WD20EARS $99 $268 (when purchased together)
Total:
$596

2TB’s in 3 places using a using a Guardian MAXimus is $596. $211 cheaper than the drobo 2TB solution.

To achieve the same maximum storage capacity as the 4 bay Drobo, you can’t just add drives to the Guardian MAXimus, so we need to buy new ones. You’d need three of these as well, so looking at those costs is a simple matter of taking the 2TB setup and multiplying by 3, so for about the same storage capacity, we are looking at $1,788, $423 less than the 3 Drobo solution.

Yes, I’ve read horror stories about the Data Robotics Drobos and the Newer Technology Guardian MAXimus’s (MAXImii?) failing, corrupting the structure, controller level problems, but nothing is fail proof.  Having the data backed in the manner I described gives you a darn good chance of recovering your data.

If you don’t like the Newer Technology’s drives or enclosures, here are some other options for the maximum single device usable capacity of the 4 Bay Drobo .

A G-Technology based system:

Qty Description Each Extended Price
3 G-SAFE RAID 1 2TB (They don’t sell enclosure only models) $580 $1,740
3 USB 2.0+ Firewire 1394 Combo Enclosure for 3.5-inch SATA Hard Drive up to 2.0 TB $34
3 Western Digital 2 TB Caviar Green Bulk/OEM Desktop Hard Drives WD20EARS $99 $402 (when purchased together)
Total:
$2,142

A LaCie based System:

Qty Description Each Extended Price
3 LaCie 2big Quadra 4 TB 2-Disk RAID Hard Drive 301432U (yes, I know it says 4TB) $466 $1,398
3 USB 2.0+ Firewire 1394 Combo Enclosure for 3.5-inch SATA Hard Drive up to 2.0 TB $99
3 Western Digital 2 TB Caviar Green Bulk/OEM Desktop Hard Drives WD20EARS $34 $402 (when purchased together)
Total:
$1,800

I found a few others, but their specs are exactly clear, and looking at Glyph Technologies, whom, I’ll admit, never heard of until I did the research for this post, has some interesting products, one of which, seems to be the correct product, but when you can configure an enclosure to be RAID 0 or RAID 1, and state the capacity, but don’t state at what RAID level that capacity exists, it is tricky to tell what you would need to achieve the same size.

And a chart of all the options listed above at the 2TB, and maximum capacities:

2TB Cost Maximum Capacity Cost
Data Robotics Drobo $807 $2,211
G-Technology G|SAFE $848 $2,142
LaCie 2Big Quadra $734 $1,800
Newer Technology Guardian MAXimus $596 $1,788

Beyond just the economics of it all

I think 2TB chunks are much more manageable using this method. Fairly quickly, your photos from a year ago stop changing, they probably stop changing a month after you’ve taken them. Since your off-site drive(s) stop changing, you don’t have to swap them as often, but I’d still recommend doing it monthly.  You aren’t relying on one set devices for everything, you reduce the risk of losing data should the controller in the device go bad.

Beyond all this, I also use Mozy Crashplan.  Yes, 6TB of data will take months, and months to get there, but those sets of 2TB drives that you start off with have plenty of time to get there.  You already have an off-site backup, so there really is no rush.  And as you consume more and more space, it will eventually trickle up there and be backed up should something happen to all three, four if you count the RAID drives separately.

If you are already occupying a large amount of disk space, some cloud type backup providers offer a service where you send a them a disk to get you started faster, but again, using the method I described, there is no real rush to get it there.

While I listed all Western Digital 2 TB drives above, I highly recommend alternating brands of drives, use a Seagate and a Western Digital, or some other brand along with it.  Yet another way to reduce the risk of total failure due to “bad batch” problems that sometimes occurs.  And keep a log, of the serial numbers, purchase dates, and place of purchase somewhere too.  If a drive fails while it is under warranty, having this information will be extremely helpful.  While I have hard drives that have been spinning for 8+ years, it is probably wise to replace them over time as well, before they fail.

At the beginning of the article, I mentioned that Drobos “can serve a purpose”.  If screwing drives into enclosures, connecting cables, sometimes setting jumpers and more isn’t you thing, by all means, get a Drobo.  They are probably the simplest RAID style system to use for quick and easy expansion.  My system is certainly not a Ron Popeil “set it and forget it” setup, but it works well for me and it may for you.

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  • I’m not so sure your argument is against Drobo so much as against an “all-Drobo” solution in a specific “rotating-drives-offsite” setup. You yourself don’t even trust a single solution (i.e. you use Mozy). My personal choice is Time Machine to a Drobo FS (for 3-4 different Macs in my home), along with CrashPlan Central. No drive-swapping required (other than periodically upgrading the Drobo FS’s HDDs). My out of pocket is around $850 initially for the Drobo FS and a couple of 2 TB drives, plus $10/month for CrashPlan Central, plus around $200 to pre-“seed” the CrashPlan Central backup (not required, but saves a ton of uploading time). So I don’t have to trust my local Mac’s copy, my local time machine copy (Drobo FS), or my cloud copy (CrashPlan Central), because I have all 3. Any thoughts on this, Joe?

  • There are several factors here. The post I wrote is really about storing photos, not really for Time machine backups, which can be sort of fixed in size. For each Mac on Time Machine, I’d go with 3x the hard drive size. And unless you upgrade the drive(s), the size you need, depending on how far back in time you might need to go, doesn’t change a whole lot.

    There are a few other thoughts on this. If your Drobo FS fails, at either the chassis level, or, depending on how you have it configured, a single or dual drive failure, what is the replacement cost of all that, and can you buy one “down the street” if needed? Yes, where I am, I can walk into B&H and buy one, but it isn’t exactly something you can get in a inch from a local store in most cases.

    Lastly, Crash Plan, Mozy, Carbonite, it doesn’t matter. That is my backup of last resort – I like to have a near same speed backup/restore as a local drive. But for the purposes that time machine covers, having a secondary copy of the time machine backup drive may be overkill for some.

    I have Time Machine, on each of my Macs, going to single, standalone 2TB USB drives hanging off an Airport Extreme, and, I use Carbon Copy Cloner to a different 2TB partitioned to match the Mac’s drive structure, and it is that CCC drive that I swap in and out.

    Happy to discuss/explain further if you like.

    Thanks!