Drobo's direct-attached and network-attached storage units are quite popular in the market, but we never got the opportunity to evaluate them on AnandTech. At CES 2016, we met with Drobo and got pitched with the advantages of Drobo's BeyondRAID technology. In this review, we take a look at how BeyondRAID is used in one of their most popular DAS units - the Drobo 5D.


Drobo makes a variety of external storage devices for both consumers and businesses. These fall under both direct-attached and network-attached categories. Their first product appeared in the market in 2007, and since then products have been released regularly. I will not go into the details of Drobo's history, as Wikipedia has more than enough interesting information about how Drobo has evolved over the years.

One of the major selling points of Drobo's products (compared to the competition) is the usage of a proprietary patented method to provide resiliency against disk failures. We will briefly discuss this feature (called BeyondRAID) further down in this section. Prior to that, let us take a look at the specifications of the Drobo 5D.

Drobo's products have a long life cycle. In fact, the Drobo 5D DAS was introduced back in late 2012, and it is still available in the market and receiving firmware updates.

Hardware Aspects

Compared to the average multi-bay direct-attached storage solution, the Drobo 5D has two interesting features - the first one is the presence of two Thunderbolt ports on the unit in addition to the USB 3.0 device port. The second is the presence of a mSATA SSD slot on the underside of the unit. It can be used for data-aware tiering, i.e, caching of 'hot' data.

The Drobo 5D employs premium packaging. In addition to the 150W (12V @ 12.5A) power adapter, USB 3.0 cable and the quick start guide, the main unit comes in a tote bag. The all-metal chassis has rounded edges can be aesthetically pleasing, away from other sharp-edged designs: the five 3.5-inch drive bays are covered by a magnetic lid and installing disks is a tool-less operation. After moving the latch to the side, the drives slot right in, and the latch automatically snaps back in to keep the drive in place / prevent accidental removal. A spring mechanism at the inner end ensures that taking out the drives is a simple matter of just moving the latch to the side.

The mSATA slot is accessible from the underside of the chassis and is also controlled by a latching mechanism. A sticker strongly advises users to install the mSATA module only after completely powering down the system. The mSATA SSD is held in place by a couple of notches that slot into the holes usually reserved for screws. In fact, the Drobo 5D chassis is extremely user-friendly - there is absolutely no need for a screwdriver, and, in fact, there are even no tool-less screws to deal with.

Moving on to the chassis itself, we have indicator LEDs to the right and bottom of the front lid. The rear side of the lid provides a guide to the statuses indicated by the various colors. As is usual, the ports and switches are all on the rear side of the unit. A 120mm fan is housed behind the perforated rear panel to provide ventilation. There are two Thunderbolt ports to support the usage of the unit as part of a daisy-chain configuration. Unfortunately, it works only with compatible Apple products. A USB 3.0 Type-B female port, a power inlet and an explicit power on/off switch make up the rest of the rear panel. The gallery above shows the various external hardware aspects of the Drobo 5D.

Even though we didn't do a full-length teardown of the unit, the firmware file points to a Marvell ARMADA XP platform in the Drobo 5D. The Thunderbolt ports are obviously enabled by Intel DSL3510 controller.

Drobo Dashboard and BeyondRAID

In our initial setup, the Drobo 5D was loaded up with 5x 2TB drives and booted up after connecting over USB 3.0 to our DAS testbed. Windows Disk Management reported a 64TB physical disk which could be formatted in NTFS and used without hiccups on any other Windows system. Obviously, the 64TB capacity is virtual. In order to get a look at the actual usable capacity, and check up on the status of the disks in the unit, Drobo supplies the Drobo Dashboard, a tool for central management of all Drobo devices on the network / directly attached to the PC on which it is installed. The gallery below shows the various features of the Drobo Dashboard and the administration tasks that can be executed using it.

The Drobo Dashboard allows the Drobo 5D to be setup with single- or dual-disk redundancy, the former being the default. For people coming from a RAID background, this is similar to RAID-5 or RAID-6 (coming with similar requirements in terms of number of disks required). The Dashboard also presents the total usable capacity, based on the capacity of the disks in the unit. Other operational aspects are pretty much evident from the gallery pictures.

BeyondRAID is the data protection scheme used by Drobo. It is a patented proprietary scheme unlike traditional software RAID (mdadm etc.). ArsTechnica has a detailed look into the patent behind BeyondRAID for those interested in the technical details of how BeyondRAID works. One of the main disadvantages of this proprietary scheme is that it is impossible for third-party tools to reconstruct data in case of a faulty unit. Unless the user has a standing warranty coverage from Drobo, getting hold of another similar Drobo unit is the only way out.

One of the advantages of BeyondRAID over some of the other RAID implementations is that disks of varying sizes can be used. This is similar to mdadm-based implementations like Synology Hybrid RAID (SHR). In the case of single-disk redundancy, the largest capacity disk is completely used up for protection purposes. For dual-disk redundancy, the two largest disks are used up and don't contribute to the usable capacity.

We evaluated the Drobo 5D in both single-disk and dual-disk redundancy modes. In both cases, we also processed benchmarks in two modes - with a mSATA SSD in the hot-cache drive bay and without it. Five 2TB Toshiba enterprise SATA hard drives (MG03ACA2SATA) were used along with a Plextor 256GB M5M mSATA drive for benchmarking purposes. In the next section, we take a brief look at our testing setup, evaluation methodology and testing results.

Direct-Attached Storage Performance
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  • SirGCal - Monday, April 25, 2016 - link

    Seagates: http://www.seagate.com/support/downloads/item/thun...

    Assuming I googled the right ones obviously. Simply put, while much rarrer for windows, they have been around. And for quite a while. I think the Intel driver is from 2014 or something for W7-8.1
  • tuxRoller - Monday, April 25, 2016 - link

    Ganesh, is there a possibility that you could look at snapraid? I'm curious to see how it performs relative to the other solutions (like unraid, for instance), especially when it comes to bit rot and disk loss.
    I know that their are tools that are designed for the fs devs that will stimulate various behaviors (bad cables, bad controller, etc) which would make this test easier to perform.
    One more fs you might be interested in is bcachefs (written, mostly, by former googler Kent Overstreet). To my knowledge, it's the only fs written outside of the filesystem layer in Linux (it works below the fs layer in the block layer). Its got a number of fascinating features and its design is extremely unusual.
  • Navvie - Tuesday, April 26, 2016 - link

    Don't hold your breath. Won't even cover ZFS despite lots of comments on the NAS reviews saying the ZFS is a better solution.

    Can't upset those hardware vendors or they might not send review samples.
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, April 26, 2016 - link

    ZFS is simply not ready for *consumer-level* use unlike traditional RAID.

    Call me when the flexibility, performance and low-power nature of traditional RAID (both mdadm and hardware vendors) is matched by a ZFS system.

    Pretty sure btrfs has better chance to replace traditional ext4 RAID in consumers from COTS vendors rather than ZFS for *consumer* use. Enterprise is a different story.

    It is a matter of how much time you can invest in a review and return on that investment. The vendors play no role here.

    I bet you didn't see this review of a DIY NAS: http://www.anandtech.com/show/9508/asrock-rack-c27...

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
  • tuxRoller - Tuesday, April 26, 2016 - link

    Performing further tests with that hardware would be great.
    I'd love to see how various setups perform (that is, it'd be nice if you imaged Linux, *BSD, and windows to test how their solutions compare.... including robustness, as I mentioned). It would be a big undertaking but I've not seen anything like that before and it seems like AT's audience would be interested.
  • rrinker - Monday, April 25, 2016 - link

    The outside access stuff has been turned off by Microsoft dropping Windows Live several years ago.
    None of the other options that are current offer everything WHS does, the backup being key. I have an unlimited Crashplan account so I COULD back up each machine individually, but that means a lot more bandwidth utilization from the way it is now, which is the WHS backing them all up and deduping the data BEFORE it goes to Crashplan. And the recoveru is not nearly as convenient - with WHS you can mount any selected backup as a drive and just copy files off it. All backups are incremental and it automatically links them together so you just pick which date you want to recover from and you see the state of the whole drive as of that date, even if on that actual backup, it only backed up a tiny fraction of your files. My machine is more than capable of running Server 2012 R2, but no version does what I need (and WHS was cheap - definitely worth paying for). I could theoretically run WHS in a Hyper-V VM under 2012, but that makes doing the drive pool much more complex. Maybe VMware with passthru storage with all my storage drives.
  • HideOut - Monday, April 25, 2016 - link

    So it says daisy chaining only works under macs? WTF? Do they not support the massive windows user platform fully?
  • tarasis - Thursday, April 28, 2016 - link

    I've had 2 Drobo units (both 4 Bay, 2nd and 3rd Gen), and generally speaking I've had a good run with them. The 2nd Gen was horribly slow, but then I wasn't putting stuff onto it that needed fast access. I was backing up (with an external single disk as an extra paranoid backup) data and videos, and streaming those videos off it. When the fan died and the cost of getting an out of warranty repair was nearly as much as buying a new 4 Bay drobo, I opted to get the 3rd Gen which is much faster be it over Usb 2 (that my server has) or USB 3 which my Hackintosh has.

    I like the Drobo because it is easy to mix and match drives and slowly increase the size over time as disk prices come down. IIRC (this was prob late 2007 or 2008) it was the easiest option for setting up an expandable backup/storage. I am a computer techie (and programmer by profession) but was also a stay at home dad of a 2 and 1 year old at the time who didn't have the time to look into building my own backup solutions with RAID or windows server or anything like that. I just wanted something that was fire and (mostly) forget.

    Their SW is pretty poor and I miss the old version which updated the menubar icon with the actual disk state rather than a static icon. HW wise I've only had two problems, the first was on the new 2nd Gen, the power supply was borderline sufficient and under strain would cause the Drobo to reboot. They sent a new power supply out quickly and it was sorted in a couple of days. The second was that the fan was dying and very loud on the 2nd gen, but it had been going for 6 years well. I may yet try and replace it, I had found a blog where someone else had done it, but its not particularly a user replaceable part.
  • alanc - Friday, April 29, 2016 - link

    Don't believe a word Drobo say. Their devices are just USB-bridges. They are dumping a load of flawed devices. Their support is the worst i have encountered in 35-years working in the field of IT. Their software is written by a blind-baboon, their quality-assurance staff were either bribed or drinking Tequila all day long. Their senior staff are insolent, argumentative and down-right jerks in many cases. Don't give these idiots your money.
    You have been warned..
  • zaphoddd - Wednesday, May 4, 2016 - link

    I've a couple Drobos and would like to chime in.
    1. Have not had to use support (they have just worked for the last 4-5 years).

    2. I can replace a bad drive without reconfiguring, managing, the box. Pull drive. Replace and it rebuilds. IIRC not necessarily the case with the others. Many require backing up, and rebuilding the volume.

    2. I can pull drives from one drobo, and put them in another and my volume just shows up and works. IIRC thats not an option on most raid boxes

    3. I can change the size of the volume on the fly. I can add bigger drives, and the volume knows what to do.

    Things may have changed but the last time I looked at raid boxes - to change the setup, meant wiping the array, which means moving (and having a spare place to move) a dozen or so terabytes of files, and then moving them back. That's a no.

    I connect one via USB, and one via FW800 - neither is a speed demon, but not noticeably slow by any means. File transfers speeds are comparable with standard drives. Newer models have a SSD cache.

    I'm just a dude, with lots of data, and its been safe for years on my 2. I've had 1 drive failure, and after replacing the drive, it rebuilt just like I expected it to. Just replaced the drive and let it be. Lights turned green, volume was rebuilt.

    I'm surprised by the strongly worded protests. Interesting.

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