Would love to love

Wolf | January 17th, 2012 - 10:50

What you must know about the limitations of Drobo drives before you buy one. A review by pro photographer Wolf Kettler.

I could not quite believe what I read in the FAQ on a fellow photographer’s website. The photographer answered the not unreasonable question how long clients’ photographs would be kept in a conundrum of technical excuses along the lines of “oh, everything is so difficult with digital images and we will run out of space sooner or later, so we will chuck out your photos and if you want something from two years ago, tough”.

Personally, I aim to keep all my work indefinitely. I think it is good service to do so. True, clients do not often come back for reprints after lengthy periods but it happens and in any case, a lack of disk space is no good reason to throw out my work. If you want in twenty years’ time and perhaps as a retirement present a life size print of that nude portrait that we will make next month, I want to be able to help.

The other photographer’s statement about the difficulties in storing digital images was bewildering. Technology is supposed to make life easier for us. If you run out of space, you just add another hard disk or replace the current one with a larger version. This is where my new Drobo says “hello, pleased to meet you” and my heart says “I am off now”.

Simply put, a Drobo (short for the company name Data Robotics) is a sleek little cabinet that houses a number of hard disks and groups them together so that the computer and its user see them all as one huge drive. At the risk of making myself look old, I have used computers that ran on one floppy disk, I remember when hard disk drives were first fitted in personal computers and a time when a 20 GB hard disk was magical. Now and with the help of my Drobo, I can store an unimaginably large quantity of photographs or, should I wish to pursue another career at some point in the future, run the financial affairs of a small country.

The Drobo is not a unique concept. There are many products from various manufacturers, such as LaCie, Certon and Western Digital, that do the same – group disks together to make one large drive and store everything in duplicate. If a disk fails, replace it with a new one and everything is rebuilt automatically. Run out of space and add another disk or replace it with a larger one. Technologically though and, as it turns out strictly on paper, the Drobo has advantages over its competitors, all to do with mixing drives of different sizes and rebuild procedures in case of disaster in the form of incompetent assistants, fire, earthquakes or a cup of tea that has found its way to where it should never have gone. Not to mention the vengeful ex, who is intent on destroying your life’s work.

The Drobo has also some disadvantages, which are serious enough to make the rivals look like a lifeboat crew when you are about to drown out at sea. Annoyingly, but not surprisingly, the manufacturer keeps quiet about the less lovable characteristics. After all, if you knew about the product’s faults, you would not buy it, would you?

The energy saving Sleep feature

Computers putting themselves to sleep after a while of inactivity is standard these days. Great for your electricity bill, probably great for the computer’s life span and great for the environment. Unfortunately, when my Drobo goes to sleep, he is not inclined to wake up again easily, no matter how much I tickle him under his chin. (Yes, it’s a he and not an it.)

I remember the first time my Drobo went to sleep as if it were yesterday. Granted, it was only last month. He should have woken up and stood to attention, ready for action, in the same way as the rest of the system. Alas, there was no gentle whirring of a hard disk, no sparkle of a light, not even a flicker of an eyelid. There was not a grain of doubt in my mind: My Drobo was seriously ill, possibly struck down with a rare disorder.

When I said “my Drobo is always so sleepy. He does not want to wake up” to the Drobo support people, they suggested trying this, trying that and trying the other, none of which made any difference. He would perform whilst awake but if I let him go to sleep, he would sink into deep unconsciousness.

“Is my Drobo suffering from narcolepsy?” I asked after nearly a month and wondered whether I should feed him amphetamines.

“No, it’s not that”, the friendly support person reassured me. “It is a known issue. There is nothing you can do except unplug and re-plug it every time.”

Unplug and re-plug? Some technical solutions have a distinct stone age charm. It took them nearly a month to let me in on the secret. A month, during which I spent hours trying, well, this and that and the other.

The Drobo people told me that they were “hoping to resolve soon”, which of course means that there might be a fix next month, next year or never. I believe that this is what is called not good enough.

I should know better but I could not help myself and voiced my disappointment on twitter – and received a prompt reprimand from somebody, who claims to be the Senior Director of some department or other at Drobo. On his twitter account he says that Drobo is “the coolest storage on the planet”. If it worked as it should I would agree.

“Please enlighten me .. what Drobo functions do not work”, he demanded.

So I did, enlighten him, that is, and this was the end of our brief encounter. I expect that he did not want to be enlightened in so much detail and I have to face up to the fact that I was a mere fling to him; a one-tweet stand.

Data restoration

One of the attractions of a drive like the Drobo is the ease, with which data can be rebuilt in case of something really bad happening. As it is composed of a number of disks and the data is stored in clever duplicate on another, if one disk fails, you can simply swap it for a new one and the drive rebuilds the data automatically. If you are of a paranoid persuasion, you can have it keep three copies, including the original.

I met a fellow Drobo user on twitter, who told me that the rebuild procedure in case of a hard disk failure seemed to take a rather long time. He was in the process of rebuilding 2.5 TB of data and the process had been running for eight days (!) already. Estimated time to completion: 15 days. When he raised the subject of long rebuild times with Drobo support, he was apparently told that “some of our customers are waiting for weeks”.

Backup

Whilst my Drobo should be a pretty safe method of storage, it still needs backing up. For day-to-day operations, the RAID concept with its automatic second copy is good enough for me. Periodically, however, I like to have a full, extra backup of everything. Ideally, this backup should be kept off-site.

When I first installed my Drobo, I needed a quick way of testing it and decided to run a backup using the Windows Backup tool. After that, nothing worked. Drobo support told me that their drives are incompatible with Windows Backup. Not a big deal because I had never intended to use Windows Backup. I was lucky because I had not yet transferred large amounts of data onto my Drobo. Lucky, because I was told to reformat it and set it back to virgin condition. I do not blame the people at Data Robotics for the incompatibility but they could have prevented the situation if they had mentioned it in their documentation.

Did I mention the backup programme Acronis True Image from a different manufacturer, which is one that is recommended by Drobo? It works a treat except that it has disabled the built-in card readers on my PC. Also a known issue, about which the manufacturer keeps quiet. I have yet to hear back from them but I think that I already know the answer.

Conclusions

Manufacturers of computer equipment and software have the annoying habit of assuming that everything that is wrong with their products is the result of their customers’ awkwardness and that every customer is overjoyed to spend hours troubleshooting the manufacturers’ mistakes. Oh yes, these people are very generous with your time!

Just because I use a computer does not mean that the manufacturers can expect me to be an expert with enough time on my hands to sort out their shortcomings. My car manufacturer does not expect me to be a mechanic.

I would be in favour of legislation that requires manufacturers to state any known technical issues and incompatibilities clearly, in plain language and in poster size print before you can buy their products.

I love the concept of the Drobo and I do run my fingers across the slick chassis once or twice a day (he is ever so handsome to look at), to which he will usually respond by saying “I am sorry, it’s not my fault”.

“Yes, it is”, I reply firmly.

The rest is routine. Drobo sheds a tear or two, goes to sleep and I gently unplug and re-plug to wake him. Then we make up and the world is a happy place until the next time he gets sleepy.

I would love to love my Drobo but as things stand, I can’t.

Updates

To present a fair picture, I will post updates until the sleep issue has been resolved:

18 Jan 12: Met a fellow photographer on twitter, who had to replace an existing 2 TB hard disk with a 3 TB disk because he was running out of space. Initial estimate for the rebuild was 31 hours but he estimates this process to be completed within about 26 hours – a much more reasonable time frame than the 15 days I had come across before.

18 May 12: It is about five months now since I first mentioned my narcoleptic Drobo to the manufacturer. I like to keep in touch with people and open a new support case once a month or so. Why do I have to open a new case, you might ask? Because the good people at Drobo support keep closing the cases as “resolved”. They keep promising but the only thing that has happened so far is that one of the bosses at their European subsidiary wants to talk to me on the phone. He cannot make this week, I cannot make next, so it will have to wait until the week after. For good measure, I have also written to the Chief Architect at Drobo. I reckon that something in his architecture went wrong.

The people from Acronis, however, who manufacture the backup programme that I mentioned in my above post, have performed admirably. They have released a new version of the software and everything works swimmingly now. Not only that but they also contacted me personally about the update and kept in touch to ask how I was doing (I presume in connection with the programme). A huge thumbs up for Acronis.

10 Jan 13: A lot has happened since my last update to this post: In May of last year I spoke to Drobo’s European support chief, who offered either an exchange of my drive, a return for a refund or, he promised, I could wait for a software update, which would resolve the problem. I did not fancy the extra work involved in installing a new drive and moving everything, so I decided to wait. Luckily, I recorded the telephone conversation because the update, which was firmly promised for before the end of 2012, did not materialise. Today, very nearly to the day a year after first publishing this post, I have received a refund from Drobo. It is an end to this unpleasant eposide but not one that I wanted to see because I still have to invest the time and possibly extra money to find, source and install a different drive, set it up and move all the data.

17 Oct 14: A very late update to this post from over two and a half years ago: My data now lives on a Synology NAS drive. We are very happy together.

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