My new Drobo 5N came in yesterday!

Drobo 5N image from Drobo website

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.

So I searched high and low for the best NAS for my situation, and I settled on the brand new Drobo 5N with three WD Red 3TB drives.

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.

Performance

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).

Conclusion

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.

Update

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.

16 Responses to “My new Drobo 5N came in yesterday!”

  1. shaggy writes:

    Thanks a lot for this info. Helped me make my decisions. I have a DNS323 that I am replacing with the Drobo 5N. I just pulled the trigger today and bout it with 3 WD Red 3TB drives. It does hurt to drop a grand, but I think it will be well worth it. I’m a mac/linux geek like you and hope Drobo brings app support back soon!

  2. Tad writes:

    I hope it works out for you. Let’s hope those WD Red drives live up to their NAS design—I was definitely concerned when I was researching drives and read about RAID devices dropping drives that were doing their internal housekeeping magic for too long. These are supposed to work for NAS devices, and I wasn’t quite ready to pay for true enterprise-level drives.

    The other dayI did an experiment where I installed Windows 7 on a VirtualBox VM stored on the Drobo. Surprisingly, the VM is actually quite usable, and I think any slowness I am seeing has more to do with my 2008 iMac than the Drobo.

  3. Klep writes:

    Hey Tad,

    I’m also trying to using a Drobo 5N for backups using rsync and came across your blog post. I’ve basically got it working, but it seems like the Drobo doesn’t support samba “linux extensions”. Filenames that include a ‘:’ character don’t work without the “mapchars” option and soft links don’t seem to work at all.

    Did you experience similar problems? Any chance you could share your fstab entry to show how you’re mounting the Drobo share?

  4. Tad writes:

    Hi Klep,

    I agree about those Linux extensions. I probably didn’t run into that because I have been dealing with dodgy Samba configurations so long that I hadn’t ever tried to do a symlink on one.
    I did notice that colons don’t make it through, as you said. I think it was when I was trying to rename video files to match the film names.

    Fortunately, most Unicode characters do make it through, so weird song titles don’t get munged (I have a huge Bossa Nova collection with Portuguese song titles).

    Here’s the essence of what I’m doing for the rsync stuff that backs up my Plex library to the Drobo:

    mount -t cifs -o iocharset=utf8,username=plexuser,password=fluffykitten123 //drobo.home/Plex $TARGET_TEMP_DIR || { echo “failed to mount $TARGET_TEMP_DIR”; exit 1; }

    # … other stuff here …

    rsync -axW –delete –exclude ‘.*’ $SOURCE_DIR/ $TARGET_DIR/

  5. Steve writes:

    Hi Tad,

    I’m tempted to get the Drobo 5N, but the problem I have is that I have an ESXi host that uses iSCSI as storage on my existing NAS and I’ve got multiple Nix servers mounted to NFS shares on the NAS as well. The lack of iSCSI and NFS on the 5N is a little worrying. I could probably make a plan with the iSCSI, but I’m not sure whether I should switch to SMB…

  6. Vivin writes:

    Hello Tad,

    I just got my 5N today. I’m planning on plugging it into my network. However, even before that, I’m having trouble setting it up. According to the docs, you need to start up the dashboard so that it recognizes the Drobo and formats the drives appropriately. I don’t see how I can do that from Ubuntu. Currently I’m setting up a Windows 7 VM and hoping I can do it from that. Do you know how I can set up the Drobo if I only have a Linux box?

  7. Klep writes:

    Thanks for confirming. I’m trying to get Drobo Support to acknowledge that there’s an issue with Unix Extensions in their CIFS implementation, but have been unsuccessful. In the meantime, if you add the “mapchars” option to your mount command, you won’t have the issue with the colons anymore. Still no symlinks though.

  8. Tad writes:

    Hi Vivin,

    I’m not sure I can help you. The Drobo just keeps on doing its thing once it is set up, but it seems like you need one Windows or Mac box on the network to run the Drobo Dashboard to configure the thing.

    And though I was quite the daredevil in setting up a VM on the Drobo, I went back to a local VM once I saw that it could be done. I wouldn’t trust a real VM on my Drobo.

    That said, it has been performing perfectly. It occasionally lights up a new light as my data grows, indicating one more step closer to adding drives.

  9. Tad writes:

    Hi Klep,

    Thanks for the

    mapchars

    tip. I was all ready to try it out when I realized that the issues seem to be on the Mac mounted drive, and I don’t think I want to mess with trying to figure how to force my Mac to use that switch for now.

    I spend my days puzzling over weird Unicode conversion issues, wondering where along the pipeline some developer used ISO-8859-1 when they should have used UTF-8, causing me endless fun. Because of those kinds of issues I just try to go with whatever works in the default configuration. Since Plex doesn’t need the colons, neither do I.

    Still, the Linux Geek part of me wants to try that option from my Linux box, just to see it work.

  10. Viggz writes:

    When you say the drobo started humming when you plugged it in, what do you mean by this….. Is it a loud humm, as in to loud to sit next to your laptop while editing ?

  11. Tad writes:

    No, it’s really quiet. When I saw your question I had to go over to the thing and listen hard to hear it. My Ubuntu Plex server across the room emits far more noise. You could sit right next to this Drobo and never be bothered by it.

  12. Steven Scott writes:

    Vivin: I have an older Drobo running, and you can configure it with Linux droboutils and format from there. A few Google searches should show new options.

  13. Zack writes:

    @Steve, visit the website droboports.com. The Drobo5N is just a dual core ARM running Linux kernel 3.2. I am running the openssh and nfs server daemons on my Drobo5N.

  14. grahamb writes:

    Hi, just been googling around trying to find out how to get SSH working on my 5n and found this article. As Zack mentions, you can install ssh and nfs etc on your 5n, it’s just not well documented how you go about doing this. I found a link on the drobo website that says you need to manually map the apps share which allows you to copy over the apps you want to install just like you’d do in the old days.

    http://support.drobo.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/453

  15. Tad writes:

    By odd coincidence, I finally took Zack’s advice yesterday evening and installed rsync and other stuff from Droboports. Thanks to both of you.

    And it was really pretty painless. The DroboApps mechanism over ssh is pretty similar to the odd approach used for extending the old DNS-323: you put some files in a special place on the drive, reboot, and it enables whatever useful Linux stuff you installed.

    When I first wrote this article, the 5N didn’t support DroboApps, but now they do, and it seems that most 5S stuff runs on 5N.
    Now I’m very happy with the Drobo!

  16. Carl writes:

    Hi Tad,

    I’m trying to set up rsync on my Drobo 5N in order to allow my Netgear ReadyNAS 102 back up all data from it. I’ve been told by Netgear support I need rysnc on there, I’m not expert with network stuff but am technically savvy. Could you give me some advice on how to do this please?

    Thanks in advance.

    Carl

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