My new Drobo 5N came in yesterday!
Thursday, 31 January 2013
I have been putting off buying more NAS storage for years, letting the venerable D-Link DNS-323 protect my data with a mirrored pair of 500GB drives. Like everyone else, I have noticed that the media files just keep getting bigger, and I have two college kids at home with their computers, needing some place to store their backups.
I felt that a two-bay NAS just wasn’t enough for me anymore, and I also wanted a machine that could take advantage of gigabit ethernet to do transfers a little bit faster than the pokey DNS-323.
Read on for my initial impressions…
Choosing the Right One
There are several players in the 4 or 5 bay NAS field, and it was quite a challenge to find the one that was right for me. Mainly, I wanted to have a solid device without too many fiddly settings, easy to use, and not horribly expensive. In the end, the Drobo was a couple of hundred dollars cheaper than the other devices I was interested in, so the price was the tiebreaker.
Key features I was looking for:
- 4+ bays
- Compatible with ordinary drives
- Gigabit ethernet
- Fast data transfer
- Easy user configuration
- Support for system stuff like rsync, ssh, sftp
Build Quality and Appearance
I couldn’t be happier. The device is heavy, well made, and easy to access. The front cover is held on with magnets, so I just popped it off and slid in my three Western Digital Red drives. There is no hardware to mess with.
When it is running, it is all but silent. My old DNS-323 is noisy by comparison.
Everything you need to know is shown on the front: available capacity, disk status, and problems.
One thing that always bugged me about the DNS-323 was that it wouldn’t restart on power failure. After Hurricane Sandy came through, the only device in my house that didn’t come right back on was the DNS-323. I noticed that the Drobo started humming as soon as I plugged it in to the wall, so I assume it will not conk out if another hurricane knocks out our power for a few hours.
The progenitor of the Drobo 5N, the Drobo FS, was known for its sluggish performance, so I was concerned about how fast my files would move. It’s great to have loads of robust network disk space available, but it is even better if you don’t have to watch the progress bar creeping along at 2mb per second.
In my first day of use, I think I have a pretty good idea of how fast I can expect the device to work. I have been transferring files of all sizes up to 1G+ video files, and I saw an average transfer rate of around
40 80 to 100 megs per second. There are plenty of NAS devices that show up on the charts at closer to 80 megs per second, but there’s a difference: I actually watched it transfer files all day long in my home on my own network at around 40 megs per second. That’s good enough for me.
[Update: Now I'm getting 80-100 MB/sec and I'm stoked!]
My configuration is all Cat-6 with gigabit routers and switches. Earlier I had made the mistake of having my iMac plugged into a voip phone that had a “in” and “out” ethernet jack—essentially a two-port switch—that did not support gigabit ethernet, so I was puzzled by 5-10mb/sec rates until I finally took the phone out of the equation.
I tried experimenting with having HandBrake process video files from the Drobo and store them back on the Drobo. It worked flawlessly. At the same time I did some heavy rsync operations to move the contents of the old 2-bay NAS onto the Drobo. Simultaneously, I was moving video files from the Drobo onto my Plex server. I think I have pretty much dogpiled the Drobo as much as I can expect to happen in my home, and it didn’t even bog down.
I moved a 100GB encrypted disk image onto the Drobo and was pleasantly surprised that I can access the disk image in real time over the network without any noticeable lag.
Bells and Whistles
The Drobo Dashboard is pretty simple to use and doesn’t seem to be as quirky and buggy as many NAS control panels. Indeed, my DNS-323 always made me happy, but it was never trivial to set up shares and users on that device.
On the down side, there just aren’t any fancy features. This device is a very basic NAS.
The older Drobo FS allows you to install DroboApps, which are unsupported system applications that provide features such as ftp, ssh, rsync, and Apache. Unfortunately, the brand new Drobo 5N does not support DroboApps … yet.
I assume that this is because they did a major overhaul of the Drobo internals in order to get the thing to run faster.
Hopefully they will support DroboApps in a future firmware release. I want to be able to install rsync and ssh and ftp on my Drobo.
So how was I running rsync from the old NAS today? I simply mounted both devices as network shares on my Ubuntu server and ran rsync between the two mount points. (if you do this, make sure to set the character set correctly, such as iocharset=utf8).
I’m happy with it, though it hurts to invest a grand in a NAS with three drives. The speed isn’t stunning, but it sure isn’t bad. I haven’t added the SSD accelerator that they support, so some day I might just try that to see if I can get another boost.
I kind of miss the ability to run geeky command line stuff. The DNS-323 is a true hacker’s NAS, totally extensible, with all kinds of cool hacks people have made for it (Google “Fonz fun_plug” to get started doing neat stuff with your DNS-323). Drobo 5N doesn’t even allow me to run ssh. I hope they add support for DroboApps in a future firmware update.
My family will soon be storing Time Machine backups on it, and I will no longer be worried about my Plex server dying, dumping all of those video files.
I realize I have my work cut out for me in figuring out how to make sure everything is backed up correctly—if someone is using the Drobo as a backup and doesn’t have another copy of the data elsewhere, then the Drobo is not a true backup.
As I work out some of these issues I plan on posting useful stuff, such as how to set up the rsync scripts and so on.
The only thing between my iMac and the Drobo is a Netgear GS108 Gigabit switch, so I was pretty confident I was giving the Drobo its best shot at being fast. Today I happened to notice that one of the eight devices plugged into the switch was working at 100 bits per second, whole all of the others were Gigabit connections (both lights are lit if it is a 1000BASE-T connection). The oddball was my Squeezebox radio, which really doesn’t need to be plugged in at all since it supports wifi.
I unplugged the single non-Gigabit device and tried transferring files: the file transfer speed doubled!
I watched huge multi-gigabit files moving to and from my Drobo at speeds usually over 80MB/sec and often exceeding 100MB/sec.
What more could I want?
I don’t understand why the GS108 behaves this way, since as a network switch it should not allow one slow connection to affect the speed of the other seven connections, and my Googling on the subject turned up a lot of discussion about failed units due to bad capacitors (ugh!) and other stuff, but little about one 100BASE-T device pulling down all the Gigabit devices. It doesn’t make sense, but since the device didn’t cause the others to operate at 100BASE-T speeds (e.g. 10MB/sec), the device is not functioning as a hub, using multicast, which would be the first thing to come to mind. No, this performance hit is more subtle: it caused performance to drop to half.
Perhaps it’s kind of like how using a wifi router in combinations of B, G, and N mode reduces the peak N-mode speed. Or perhaps my particular switch is on its last legs.
More investigation is in order, but at least my Drobo is fast.