Data Robotics says Drobo is the world's first data storage robot. It has a point. It's no C-3PO, but it can automate most aspects of data storage. It serves as a giant repository which, in theory, will never lose data, never run out of space and can repair itself if problems arise. It's available now for £349.
Drobo is an external hard drive enclosure with a difference. It accepts anything up to four separate 3.5-inch SATA hard drives and turns that combined space into one central repository for storing data. Nothing new here -- but what's interesting is that it lets you hot-swap hard drives back and forth while the Drobo and the PC are switched on and in full use.
It's like an external RAID device - which can copy files from one disk to another so you never lose data -- but is superior in many ways. Drobo uses a proprietary virtualisation technology that allows it to work with just a single drive or up to three others. Drives can be added by sliding them into the Drobo's empty drive bays – no screws or tools are needed.
Once up and running you can use the drive space as if it were a single giant dumping ground for files. You can even increase the amount of storage you have whenever you see fit by adding another drive to a vacant bay. By contrast, increasing capacity in a RAID-based storage system normally requires backing up all files, replacing disks, then rebuilding the entire array -- very time consuming.
Disk replacement is inevitable with the Drobo, but the good news is that you can simply remove the smallest drive, replace it with a larger one and enjoy the extra capacity. It's like replacing batteries in a torch -- except the light never goes off.
The Drobo is currently limited to 4TB -- but that's only because there are four bays and current disk drives are limited in capacity to 1TB. Once larger drives emerge, so will the storage ceiling of the Drobo.
Aesthetically, the Drobo is very well designed. It stays cool to the touch, and while it isn't quiet enough to live in a suburban bedroom, its cooling fan isn't particularly intrusive. We like the slightly toaster-esque chassis and the glossy black removable front panel, which looks attractive against the blue and green indicator lights. Those lights, incidentally, give you visual feedback as to when you're running out of space, or when a drive can and can't be removed.
While the Drobo is a compelling proposition, it's not without its problems. There's a very real danger that ill-educated users will abuse the freedom they have to yank drives in and out of the Drobo. It's easy to misinterpret or ignore the warning lights at the front of the unit, which could spell disaster.
Adding new, unused drives to an empty drive bay is quick and effortless, but the process of swapping an old drive for a new one is far from instantaneous. It can take hours before the new drive integrates itself with your existing Drobo file system, and while that's happening, your data may not be protected -- depending on how much capacity is available on the remaining disks.
That brings us to our second bugbear. The Drobo can only be connected to your PC via USB. Its lack of an Ethernet port or wireless adaptor means it can't be accessed over a network unless your PC or an Apple Airport remains switched on. The Drobo's target audience will almost certainly miss this feature, but the good news is that the device does at least have relatively fast transfer speeds -- up to 680Mbps. It's rare you'll get close to this theoretical maximum, but it's still faster than a 10/100Mbps wired Ethernet connection or a 54Mbps 802.11g Wi-Fi link.
Drobo is a great invention. It should be commended for giving users protection against data loss and the ability to top up their levels of storage as they see fit. It doesn't come cheap, and it lacks an Ethernet feature, but it could be just the thing for anyone with precious and burgeoning file collections.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday