Drobo - My visit from Tech Field Day

During DroboDay 1 of TechFieldDay #5 we were presented with a new solution that Drobo will start to market in the not too distant future.

Now I kid you not. The technology behind the way Drobo does storage is really really smart. We received an overview on how this works and what the secret sauce is all made of. (too many people used the term Secret Sauce in these two days)


Drobo B1200i

This is the product that they are marketing as a small business solution.

The full specs can be found here, below are a  few selected items that I thought should be mentioned.

Drobo model B1200i Specifications


  • 3 x 10/100/1000 Mbps Ethernet ports
  • 1 x 10/100/1000 Mbps Ethernet port for out-of-band management
  • USB 2.0 port for management
  • 12 drive bays
  • 3.5" SATA 1 / SATA II or SAS 3.0 Gbps drives
  • Expandable by hot-swapping drives with larger ones. Use our capacity calculator to estimate available storage in various configurations.
BeyondRAID Features
  • Thin Provisioning
  • Instant Expansion
  • Mixed Drive Size Utilization
  • Automatic Protection Levels
  • Dual Disk Redundancy
  • Virtual Hot Spare
  • Data Aware
  • Drive Re-ordering
Additional Features
  • Data-Aware Tiering
  • Smart Volumes (LUNs, up to 255)
  • Drive Spin Down
  • Drobo Copy
  • Field-replaceable controller, power supplies, and fan unit
Ethernet Features
  • Connection failover
  • Jumbo Frames (up to 9000 Kb MTU)
Network Protocols
  • iSCSI
    • CHAP Authentication
Operating System Support
  • Windows 7
  • Windows Vista (Service Pack 1)
  • Windows XP (Service Pack 3)
  • Windows 2008 Server
  • Windows 2003 Server
  • Mac OS X 10.5.6 or greater (Intel Only)
  • Mac OS X Server 10.5.6 or greater (Intel Only)
  • Linux (support is currently in Beta)
  • VMware vSphere 4.x
  • XenServer 5.6
File System Options
  • Windows: NTFS
  • Mac OS X: HFS+
  • Linux: EXT3
  • VMware: VMFS
Certified Applications
  • VMware vSphere 4.x
  • Citrix XenServer 5.6
  • Symantec Backup Exec 2010
  • Drive bay indicator lights, capacity gauge, status lights
  • Drobo Dashboard version 2.1 or later
  • Drobo-initiated email notifications
  • SNMP

Power and Cooling

  • Dual, redundant, hot-swappable power supplies
  • Hot-swappable cooling fan unit

So from the looks of the specs above you could think that this is a suitable Storage device for a small medium business.

Now taking what was said at the presentation Drobo define a small-medium business up between 150-250 users.

I do think that Drobo still needs to do some additional improvements before they venture into the Business market. Al of these would assume that I am using the device as a Let me explain what I mean, All of my remarks are regarding the model mentioned above.

  1. Network Interfaces

    There are 4 NICs in the device. 
    1 is dedicated for Management and the other 3 for storage. There is no option to create any sort of NIC teaming with the other 3. which means that you will have to configure 3 separate entities for your storage, be it CIFS or iSCSI.
  2. Mixing SAS and SATA drives.

    Ask any storage vendor and they will tell you THIS IS NOT A GOOD IDEA, especially if you are going to create volumes across different drives, You will not achieve the performance that you might want, because the slowest drive in the volume will be the one that slows you down.

  3. Network Protocols

    The only option with this is iSCSI - which I find is a great mistake on the part of Drobo. I do gather that the underlying management is using some kind of Linux distribution, and NFS is native in almost all Linux distro's, So why limit yourself to only iSCSI? There are additional benefits to adding NFS for some of the other features as well. Will get to that in a minute.

    Why limit this as a shared storage device that cannot be accessed by NFS? Both VMware and Native Linux would be more than happy to make use of this storage in this way.

  4. Redundancy

    This model does have dual redundant, hot-swappable power supplies and a hot-swappable cooling fan unit, which is great! But there is only one management module - which means if that fails - whoops … there goes the storage.

  5. Data-Aware Tiering

    So what is this feature?

    Data-Aware Tiering SANs allow businesses to consolidate storage resources and share that storage across all connected servers and their applications. The reality is that different applications have different workloads. Transactional databases require different storage behavior than streaming media applications. Traditionally storage has treated all workloads as equal, not optimizing for any of them.

    The intelligence built into the Drobo model B1200i allows it to do Data-Aware Tiering, optimizing data layout and drive usage for "hot" requests. Providing faster access to frequently requested information will improve performance of Exchange, SQL Server, and other transactional applications that read and write lots of small data chunks.

    Which means what exactly. Drobo is able to recognize the data which is being accessed most frequently and move it to a faster disk which should (in theory) provide quicker access to those files.

    But here is where my problem is. They mentioned Exchange and SQL above.My understanding of how this would work, is in one of two ways.

    • Directly  attaching the Drobo to a USB port and assigning a drive.
    • Using an iSCSI volume.
    Running your Exchange or SQL server off of a USB drive? Show me an admin that does that (even if it is small-medium business) - and I will be the first one to scream at you ..
    ARE YOU NUTS?!?!??!?!?!??!?!?

    So let's go to iSCSI - ok this is done and with the proper planning can be done pretty well. when you provision a iSCSI LUN - that is it - you can no longer see what data is inside. And if you can no longer see what data is inside - how can you move it around according to usage?

    Same goes for VMFS volumes - it is a LUN and there is no way to see what data is "hot" and what needs to be moved to a higher tier.

    Going back to having NFS Support - now here you would be able to identify the frequently accessed data and move it if needed (that is another reason NFS is missing)
  6. Snapshots / Backup

    Their BeyondRAID technology is really really cool, I mean seriously. But running your business on a central storage device without having the option of backing it up (at least with snapshots) is a big

    Yes you can sync your data with Drobo Sync to another device - and you can schedule that replication according to you needs, but that is still not a backup policy.
  7. Reporting / Monitoring

    During the whole presentation - the focus of the product was on capacity. You can thin provision. Over allocate etc. etc. I feel they are missing an important point. Gone are the days that capacity is the be all and end all of storage. Personally I think that is no longer so much of an issue, specifically with virtualization. Thin provisioning rakes care of most of that. Performance has taken its place.And in the dashboards (which is a great improvement from their previous version) there is no performance monitoring. Nothing for network, nothing for storage and in IMHO this is a pity. If you are aiming to go for the business users, to ask them to base their business on your storage - you need to give the tools to manage and control this storage.

I do not mean to come over as bashing Drobo for their offering, this is not the point of this post, honestly not. But when you use words like this you should be ready to play in the big boys playground and not go half-hearted into your offering.

Built on proven BeyondRAID technology, Drobo redefines IT economics by delivering award-winning iSCSI SAN storage and advanced capabilities usually reserved for more expensive  enterprise solutions.

Drobo iSCSI SAN storage is designed to provide reliable and high performance storage to servers running business-critical applications like data protection, email, and server virtualization. It connects seamlessly to your existing TCP/IP network and utilizes the industry-standard iSCSI protocol to provide simple, consolidated storage for your servers.

So here is my personal view on this product.

The Drobo B1200i is a great entry level storage for a small business - it has great value for its price. It is simple to use and allows you to expand as you grow. Service is guaranteed NBD 24x7 (in certain cases).

It still seems to me that this is still a product that is not yet ready for the business (at least not to host your mission critical apps). the marketing look and feel of these devices is to appeal to the home user not to the Infrastructure Administrator.

If I were to bet my business on a storage device, this would not be it. At least not at this current version.


Tech Field Day is a sponsored event by the companies that are presenting. That means my travel & lodging expenses were covered by these vendors. I did take personal vacation days to attend this event. And I am under no obligation to promote any of these companies.