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Drobo tries making network storage more personal

Data Robotics' latest model is geared for network-attached storage, a technology suited for multi-computer backup and file sharing.

Two constants endure despite the unceasing change in the computing industry: our need for backing up data and our persistent failure to actually do it.

One company hoping to profit from the situation is Data Robotics, which on Tuesday launched the new Drobo FS model of its multi-drive storage system family. It's geared specifically for backing up multiple computers over a local network and for sharing files among those computers.

The eight-pound, five-drive device is the latest generation from a Santa Clara, Calif.-based company whose claim to fame is a novel method of storing data on multiple hard drives called BeyondRAID. It brings some useful extras to conventional RAID (redundant array of inexpensive storage)--technology that stores data across a group of drives, sacrificing some of the total capacity in favor of better data protection.

Data Robotics' Drobo FS, front and back
Data Robotics' Drobo FS, front and back Data Robotics

Conventional RAID uses such redundancy to protect data even if a drive fails, an approach that provides peace of mind at the expense of raw storage capacity. What's different about Drobo's systems, though, is that they can use drives of different sizes. BeyondRAID automatically rebuilds the stored data when an owner adds a new drive to expand capacity, pulls out a smaller old drive for a newer large one, or replaces a faulty drive.

The Drobo FS, like the Drobo S it resembles, can devote one or two disks to redundancy, the latter configuration keeping data intact even if two drives fail at the same time.

Earlier Drobo units fell into two general categories: single-computer models that connected directly to a PC with USB, FireWire, and most recently in the case of the Drobo S, eSATA. Next are models including the DroboPro and DroboElite that use storage area network technology called iSCSI that's good for low-level disk communications--the kind of thing database software needs.

The Drobo FS, though, uses a higher-level file-sharing interface, making it the latest attempt to interest consumers in a staple of corporate computing called network-attached storage, or NAS. Consumer-oriented NAS has been a tough sell over the years, though smaller businesses and branch offices are more easily swayed by the ability to share files among co-workers and back up data from multiple computers.

The proven market for the Drobo FS is small businesses and workgroups, said Mark Fuccio, senior director of products and markets, but Drobo is aiming for "advanced homeowners," too. People with home networks can use the Drobo FS for backing up multiple machines and sharing files from a home media center, he said.

But these features don't come cheap, at least for the crowd who looks at alternatives such as a terabyte hard drive or two connected by USB to a computer. The Drobo FS costs $699 empty, $999 with three 1.5TB drives, $1,149 with five 1.5TB drives, and $1,449 at its present maximum capacity of five 2TB drives. It will support larger drives when they come on the market.

Fuccio prefers to compare the price not to a couple 1.5-terabyte drives hooked up by USB, though, but rather to higher-end RAID models, where costs can easily exceed $1,000 even for four-drive systems.

The system works with gigabit Ethernet connections, with the Drobo FS plugging directly into a home router, with data transfer speeds of 37 to 50 megabytes per second. However, be warned that wireless networking degrades the speed substantially with Wi-Fi connections.

"I have a Wireless N network," Fuccio said, referring to the faster, newer-generation wireless networking technology. "I get a whopping 4MB/sec on it. For most people on a wireless network, it's going to be the network that's the bottleneck."

The Drobo FS runs Linux under the covers, and that opens up the possibility of running applications on the system to customize its abilities. A number of free DroboApps are available for the Drobo FS. One, for example, lets the system act as an iTunes library, letting multiple computers play the same music and video. Another, Oxygen Cloud, can be used to let people see their files from mobile phones, PCs, or other devices, and to share it across multiple Drobo FS units.

The usable capacity of the systems varies according to the drives and configuration. With single-drive protection, meaning a single hard drive can fail, a system with a 320GB drive and two 500GB drives would have a usable capacity of 762GB. One topped out with five 2TB drives would have a usable capacity of 7.3TB.

Or if you want to get really complicated, in a system with drives of 320GB, 500GB, 640GB, 750GB, and 1.5TB configured with dual-drive redundancy, the 3.4TB of raw capacity becomes 1.32TB of protected capacity. Of that, 903GB is what Drobo politely refers to as "reserved for expansion," which is to say unused until you dump that 320GB for something bigger

The system is quiet, Fuccio said. "I have one sitting at my desk. I can't hear it," he said. "I have one at home, maybe 18 inches away. I can't hear the fan [though] maybe sometimes I hear a little disk noise."