Drobo Rebuild Time and Your Sanity

I am one of the aspiring new media yahoos that bought into the fever gripping folks everywhere – the Drobo (a play on words for “data robotics.”)  Leo Laporte, Scott Bourne and all of those folks loudly proclaimed about what a fantastic device the Drobo is.

I’m here to tell you it sucks.

Now, first a disclaimer – I’m moaning about the generation 1 Drobo.  I know that a 2nd generation Drobo and a DroboPro have both been released and I’m sure they are much better devices – but there are still some serious problems here that you, the prospective buyer, need to be aware of.  If that’s you, maybe you can skip down to the bullet list for consideration below.

I purchased a Drobo for use in our studio that is expecting to have terabytes of data and loaded it up with 4 1TB Seagate 7200.11 drives.  The Drobo saw them, fired itself up and ran beautifully… or so I thought.

I noticed that the Drobo’s throughput was pretty slow.  Oddly slow.  No, ridiculously slow.  It was so abysmally slow that it was clear from minute one that this thing was only going to be useful for long term storage of archived data or as a Time Machine disk.  Okie, so it’s so slow that even as a Time Machine disk it’s problematic, but I suffered through it.  I was “feelin’ droovy” like everyone in twit.tv said I would.

Then I lost a hard drive.

At first, the Drobo didn’t indicate there was a drive failure.  It suddenly acted like it was out of drive space – at least that’s what it tried to indicate by flashing all four of the drive bays red and green.  Uhm, okie.  Either I lost all four drives or you’re trying to tell me something.

After a reboot of the Drobo, it told me that one of the drives was just bad.  It flagged it with a red light and the software, Drobo Dashboard, informed me as such.  (NOTE: If you use Snow Leopard, you can forget about using Drobo Dashboard in the 64-bit kernel as they still haven’t updated it yet.  Snow Leopard has only been available to developers for almost a year now, guys).  If you want to do anything in regards to checking error messages or updating firmware, you have to use the Drobo Dashboard kids.  That means you won’t be using the 64-bit Snow Leopard kernel.  Oh well, Drobo’s not the only folks guilty of this oversight.

Anyway, after going back to the 32-bit kernel and checking to see what’s going on, the Drobo was upset about a drive failure.  I ordered a replacement drive from Seagate and brought it into the office and replaced the dead one.  Drobo then warned me that it couldn’t protect me from hard drive failures because it was rebuilding the array.

…and it was going to take 1,447 hours to rebuild.

What?  Yes, that’s right.  Better yet, the time to rebuild changed repeatedly.  Sometimes it went to 887 hours, then 2,088 hours, then 48 hours, then back to 1,447 hours.  Drobo couldn’t make up his mind.  The drives were spinning relentlessly.  It was beating on the drives so long and so hard that I became concerned after about a week that another drive might fail in the process.  Fortunately, I could access the data on the drives and copy it off just in case, so I did so.

It’s been two weeks and the array is still building.  It’s also still copying my data off the drive.  That copy has been going on for about three days now.  I’m sure the data copy isn’t helping the throughput at all, but having my array in a compromised state for two weeks without an accurate time estimate to completion is completely unacceptable.

I started to research what was going on here and noticed that other people around the net were experiencing incredibly bad performance issues as well, especially as it pertains to array rebuild times.  The support kb at Drobo says “it can take some time” (not a direct quote), but two weeks is outrageous.  Oh yeah, and it’s still not done by the way.

My copy still has about 11 hours left, so hopefully the data will be copied off the Drobo before it dies completely.

I started thinking about the ramifications of this problem and realized that the Drobo wasn’t entirely a good idea.  I thought I’d bullet those out for you here.

  • Drobo uses a proprietary technology that is NOT based on RAID.  The proprietary technology has marketing materials on it, but that’s about all you’re going to get.  It’s the company’s secret sauce.  It’s something akin to ZFS, but all in all, you’re just going to have to trust your data to them.
  • A key selling point to the Drobo is that this secret sauce allows you to use drives that are varying in capacity and it will squeeze every byte out of it that it can.  That’s nice, but the performance of the unit is so poor that I no longer give a shit.
  • Drobo is very, very proud of their proprietary technology.  So much so that they’re willing to charge you a premium for the privilege of using it, even if it is slow.
  • Drobo performs adequately for almost nothing (other than long-term get-it-out-of-my-site storage) until it has an issue.
  • If it has an issue, you will not know about it under the 64-bit Snow Leopard kernel, if you’re not within eyeshot of the unit.  The Drobo Dashboard can send you alerts.  But if you’re using the 64-bit kernel, it’s not going to send you jack.  It’ll blink at you from across the table… that’s about it.  Hopefully this changes VERY soon.
  • The company charges a mandatory fee for firmware updates and support.  If you don’t pay them a yearly fee, you will not get any support beyond the knowledge base.  You also will not get software and firmware upgrades.  I realize that charging for support is not an entirely new thing and many companies do it, but paying a fee for firmware updates is insane.  (Garmin, I’m looking at you and those maps you want me to buy for the Nuvi, too).
  • The last bullet sucks so bad that you should stop considering a Drobo purchase.
  • Drobo is proprietary, expensive and forces a regular maintenance fee upon you.  You are handing your data over to an unknown, unproven algorithm.  Don’t do that.  I shouldn’t have.  I need to remember to be skeptical of things like this, stop buying into the hype and stick with a solution that has been proven (also known as RAID).

I ordered a Promise Smartstor DS4600 to replace the Drobo.  It’ll do good ol’ RAID5.  Once the copy finishes, I’ll be pulling the drives out of the Drobo and putting them into the DS4600.  I’ll put the Drobo someplace else… maybe hang it off the server for large archival storage one day when I feed it some more drives.  Until then, forget it.

ONE OTHER NOTE: No, I did not call Drobo Support.  Perhaps I should have, I don’t know.  I’m not sure what I was expecting them to do aside from saying, “Yeah, that will take a while.  Sorry buddy!”  So I didn’t.  Mea Culpa if you want to hold me to that, but I’m sure someone out there understands why I didn’t.

Update: Just in case any of you think I’m off my rocker (which I am, but that’s besides the point) – here’s a screen capture of my Drobo Dashboard.  Keep in mind we’re starting on WEEK THREE of the rebuild.  Check out the estimated time to completion after two full weeks…

Estimated time to completion dialog from the Drobo Dashboard.

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