Drobo and backing up

Since posting on twitter about my new Drobo, I have received a number of requests for a review of this backup and storage solution.

Backup is horrendously important. It is also not the kind of things you can do by halves. Think for a moment, is your data really safe?

I thought mine was. I was careful to backup all of my music, projects, videos and family photos to an external hard drive using an automated tool every night. At least that was what I believed, until my hard drive failed. I went to restore it only to find my backup had been silently failing for several months. It cost be £500 to recover the data and I still didn’t get everything back.

Ever since I have been paranoid about backup. However, I have always struggled to find the right solution for my situation. First I experimented with different backup software, but couldn’t shake the feeling it wasn’t working.

Next I tried off-site backup using a service called Mozy. I liked this approach because even if my house was destroyed, my data would survive. The problem with this solution is getting started. With over 220GB of data it was impossible to complete the initial upload. If I had been able to get my data online additional incremental backups would not have been a problem. Alas it was not meant to be. It is a shame because off-site backup is the most secure solution and the one I would recommend to those of you with less data.


Finally I decided to take the plunge and buy a Drobo. A Drobo is a little black box with 4 hard drive slots. You can throw in any 3.5″ internal hard drives you have lying about and it will turn them into one big drive. However should one of the hard drives fail, the real beauty is that my data is still safe. As long as I have more than one drive in the Drobo it will automatically backed up my data across drives.

If you are familiar with RAID it is very similar. What makes the Drobo different is that the drives can be of various sizes. This means you can easily steal drives out of old machines you no longer use.

Another unique selling point of the Drobo is if a drive start to fill up you can pull it out and pop in a larger replacement. No need to copy data across, the Drobo handles all of that. Theoretically the Drobo can store up to 16TB of data!

However, the best thing about the Drobo is its easy of use. You just plug it in via USB and add the hard drives. If a drive is getting full it displays an amber light. If a drive fails the light turns red. Simple! I had mine up and running in minutes. I even managed to connect it to my Aiport meaning it is viewable across my entire network.

For those without an airport or equivalent device, you will need to connect your Drobo to a PC. Obviously you can then share it with your network, but only if the PC is turned on. The alternative is to buy an addon called Droboshare. This allows you to connect the Drobo directly to your router. However, the downside of this is that it will cost you extra. That brings me on to the main problem with the Drobo.

The Drobo cost me £245 from Amazon. At first this price doesn’t sound terrible until you realise this does not include hard drives. You will have to beg, borrow or buy the drives for your Drobo. Fortunately I had a couple lying around but if you do not this will start to get expensive.

Also you will not get the entire storage space of the drives you buy. Because the Drobo is backing up your data there is an overhead. Exactly how much space you loose depends on the combination of drives. However, the Drobo website provides a great little application for calculating this.

That said, in my opinion it is worth every penny. It is an incredibly clever piece of technology that has been wonderfully executed. That kind of quality costs! However, as somebody who paid £500 for data recovery this price seems very reasonable. Most of all it provides peace of mind and that is priceless.

  • I am paranoid about backup and have tried most solutions in the past (external hard drives, DAT tape etc). I have managed to get a great offsite solution using Amazon S3.
    I use an application called JungleDisk running on a spare mac, which mounts my S3 container as a volume on the desktop. I use Chronosync to sync up various folders to it every night. The first backup took 3 days(!) but after that the backup runs overnight in an hour or two.
    The cost is minimal too. The first month was more as I paid for the initial upload of all the data, but it was still only about $40. Now I pay about $20 a month, which is great value.
    [NB: I also have all my machines backing up to attached hard disks for immediate recovery if needed]

  • I got my boss to buy one for our design studio after our LaCie drive blew up (yep, the power supply blew up rendering the entire RAID drive unusable) and LaCie said the data could not be recovered at all. I then found out my colleagues’ idea of backing up was to take all work off of their Macs onto the LaCie…and delete the original copies. A BACKUP is a SECOND copy, I told them, time and time again. I still have all of my work archives – they lost all of theirs. 2 years worth of client work!
    Now I have the Drobo set up and it’s pretty painless, can swap out the drives on the fly and it just works away on its own…also I’ve got a second smaller Maxtor drive that the Drobo backs up to which provides me a portable copy to take off-site from the office. Just in case ;-)

  • Paul & Company, Any other recommendations for online backup? I’m also really paranoid that something will happen to my in-home backup…

  • Sounds interesting. Would still like to know about things like whether the unit heats up too much, is it noisy and does it use up a lot of electricity? How many drives can be stuck into the machine? 4? More than 4? Good overview though – nice one!

  • kb

    Very timely, my effing Lacie mobile drive died this week, taking all my old backups with it – ARGHHH! I have been looking into s3, mozy, dropbox etc. Not sure how I feel about ‘sharing’ my data, and the costs do mount up…there’s always a catch! Oh and Paul it’s lose not loose ;)

  • Aaron Irizarry

    Thanks for the info… i am in the market for a backup solution… this info helped.

  • Another happy JungleDisk customer here.
    (though I have less data, so my bill is about $6/month)
    I think they recently announced a workgroup edition too:

  • I’d be interested to know why your original backup was failing silently – if it was not a disk problem, but a problem with the backups themselves then having the Drobo might not actually save you.
    Personally I have 2 external disks, one which is permanently attached for OSX Time Machine, and one that is updated once a week with a full copy of my iMac internal disk. I keep this full copy at the office, so if things go badly wrong I should still only lose a max of 1 weeks work.

  • Jacob Boomgaarden

    I’ve been using Mozy now for about 3 weeks and Paul is right about it taking a long time for the initial backup. However, I’m surprised that you gave up on this! Yes it will take an extremely long time, but at the price and the assurance, it’s hard to pass up.
    I can’t stress enough the importance of online backups. Computers crash, external harddrives (even drobo) fail. But even scarier, what happens when someone breaks into your place of business or house and takes off with both? Or a fire happens as Paul mentioned and you lose both?
    Another online service I’ve heard about is Amazon’s S3. Really techy people could try and use rsync and cron jobs to an FTP site. For pete’s sake though, do something to get your data off-site!

  • Great post, Paul. Backup is very much on my mind. I work from home on my laptop and from my parents’ house (family business). I think that online backup is important, but it’s really only the icing on the cake. It’s when all else fails. This is because it would take days and probably weeks to recover your data, unless you have an ultra fast internet connection. However, it’s a very easy solution to implement and it’s the think I put in place first. I looked at all the solutions out there and for me Carbonite is the best. The problem is for all you Mac users out there is that they don’t offer a Mac version yet. But it’s very cheap- just under $50/yr and it’s cheaper if you take out a longer subscription. And that is for unlimited backup! It also takes previous file versions which has been a life saver for me. If you you use a laptop and a desktop then I’d recommend Syncplicity. I’ve installed this on my dad’s laptop and desktop. It backs up online and keeps files on both computers completely synced! It’s fantastic. But it’s quite expensive- $99 for 40Gb. SugarSync is cross platform but in the end I didn’t go for it because it doesn’t offer file versioning.
    What I really want now is a network drive solution that just gets on with the job in backing up in the same way as Carbonite/Syncplicity/Moby/SugarSync do. Really what I would like would be exact mirrors of all our computers. The problem is there isn’t any software out there that has an easy to use interface. I do like Snapshot (can’t remember url) which takes a snapshot of your hard drive and it’s really easy to restore your computer that way. Does Drobo do this? I think it’s really pants that Drobo doesn’t have a network connection built in. I mean isn’t that the most important thing? I’m never going to remember to backup if I have to remember to connect to Drobo each time. I want it just plug and backup!

  • Very nice. I think I’ll give it a shot

  • Jeff Williams

    I would just remind everyone that having an off-site backup is insanely important. A friend of mine, who works at home, made backups religiously. A couple years ago, he got a new computer for Christmas, then went away on holiday. The thieves who stole his computer also stole his backups, which were sitting in a nice case right next to the computer. Even if you just make the occassional DVD of your latest work and leave it in a case at your mum’s house, that’s much better than having all your data in one basket.

  • fork

    Just a reminder to everyone who has an “old” drive with archived backups. Use it or lose it! Hard disks need to be read and written to on a regular basis or they will fail. Alex Lindsay of Pixelcorps and a frequent contributor to the TWIT podcast network owns a digital video company in California that uses terabytes of storage. He has learned over the years, according to his comments on a recent MacBreak Weekly podcast, that drives that stored data but weren’t spun up a few times a year had higher fail rates than old drives that were used regularly (but not abused).
    Though I only a have a dozen or so drives right now, I must admit my own experience of owning a hundred or so drives over the past twenty years validates that assertion.

  • It’s like fate telling me that I need to backup more:
    The other day, one of my harddrives died. Luckily, not an important one… On the same day, I read this post.
    Then the next day my copy of .net magazine arrived in the post. Lo and behold they’re giving away a copy of ‘Titan Backup’ on the cover cd.
    I’ve used (and been completely let down by) a fair few bits of backup software in the past, but so far I’ve found this one to be pretty good. Obviously it’s not as good a some of the more rigerous backup solutions listed here, but it’s a damn sight better than nothing!

  • Damien

    Did someone tried crashplan for off-line backup:
    It stores your data on your friends’ computers and optionally on a central server. You can back-up (and restore) other internet or your network.

  • I just use time machine and a time capsule for my macbook. I have never had a hard drive fail, but the time machine icon in the menubar tells me if the hourly backup fails.

  • Sean

    I have to comment regarding Mozy – nice people but the speed is just too slow to be able to reliably (and efficiently) create an offsite backup. I was trying to backup less than half of what Paul mentioned in his post and it would have taken over 7 weeks to complete the upload. Now some of this would be caused by upload speed limits but it underlines the difficulty in completing reliable off-site backups. I am now considering options such as mailing DVD backups to a mail storage service and having them available for shipment to me in the event of an emergency. This certainly would cause multiple days of delays but if I was able to recover 100% of my backed up data then it might be worth it.

  • Drobo has two models. The newest model is firewire 800. The older model is USB. The USB model is $150 US less. You can get $25 off either model by using this link.

  • Jon

    Hi guys, could Drobo be used to easily create off site backups? Could you purchase 3 drives, have one that lives permanently in your Drobo, and swap the other 2 every week, that way you would always have 2 drives in Drobo, and an off site backup. Is this possible?

  • @Jon Unfortunately the Drobo stores data across all drives, so removing 1 disk as an off-site copy will not contain everything and will be useless. I would say that you would have to look at a traditional RAID configuration using a RAID array that copies an exact copy of each drive to a matching drive (of exactly the same size).

  • Remember that Drobo is proprietary, and there is NO working data recovery software is there is a failure, unlike Linux and MS Server operating systems.  Once you loose the data, it is gone forever!  It is only a matter of time that you will loose your data.  True, with other RAID systems, but there are recovery options.  NOT with Drobo.

  • Remember that Drobo is proprietary, and there is NO working data recovery software is there is a failure, unlike Linux and MS Server operating systems.  Once you loose the data, it is gone forever!  It is only a matter of time that you will loose your data.  True, with other RAID systems, but there are recovery options.  NOT with Drobo.