Drobo (3rd gen) to Drobo 5C, part 1

This is part of a multi-part review of the Data Robotics Drobo 5C.

See also: Introduction

Drobo 5C box.

I have received my Drobo 5C unit which I will be using for this review. Much like the 3rd generation model, the 5C comes packaged in a large white Drobo box, with the unit itself wrapped in a cloth shopping bag protected by two foam inserts. In the top of the box is another smaller box which contains the paperwork, power supply, power cable, and a USB to USB-C cable.

Data Robotics does a nice job at packaging their products. It’s not quite on the level of Apple, but fairly close.

Let’s take a look inside the box…

Drobo 5C box and contents.

Drobo 5C accessories: USB cable, power cable, and power supply.

Drobo 5C quick start guide (inside of the removable cover of the small box).

Since the 5C can hold five hard drives, it is about one inch taller than the previous model. Here is the 5C (left) compared to the 3rd generation model (right):

Drobo 5C vs Drobo (3rd gen).

Please excuse the protective plastic covering you see on my drives. I tend to keep it on things I buy to protect them, so when I sell them later it is still in “like new” shape.  (I do remove any plastic that would cover air vents or similar.)

The first thing I noticed was that the 5C case is a different design. While similar looking, instead of being a sleek case where the front and back are flush to the metal casing, the new model seems to just be a metal casing, with the front and rear inset a bit with a gap running all around them. This seems like a step back, cosmetically. It just doesn’t look as sleek as the past incarnations, and the gap seems like it would be even more places for dust to collect.

You can also see that the blue capacity lights are now along the bottom of the enclosure, and no longer behind the removable front cover. I always throught the “show through” lights were a nice touch, so I am sad to see them go. BUT, in the previous Drobos I had, there were two additional lights hidden behind the front panel: power and data transfer. I would sometimes have to remove the front panel to see if the Drobo was locked up, or if the data transfer light was flickering. Function wise, being able to see these without removing the panel is a plus.

Here is a photo of the two units with the front covers removed:

Drobo 5C vs Drobo (3rd gen) – front panel removed.

You can see that the drives start a bit lower than in the old model, which is why the unit can hold an additional drive and not be as tall as you might expect. You can see the two “hidden” lights on my old Drobo, that now appear at the far left and far right of the new Drobo 5C.

In the next part, we’ll take a look at moving drives over from the old Drobo to the new 5C, and see what it takes to activate the Dual Disk Redundancy feature.

More to come…


Drobo (3rd gen) to Drobo 5C, introduction

My long history with external hard drives was covered in an earlier article, so I will just summarize:

I’ve gone through a bunch of hard drives and external enclosures since 1999.

Last year I shared a multi-part series about migrating from a 2nd generation Drobo to the newer 3rd generation models. The 3rd generation version solved most of the performance issues, especially when it came to the time it took to rebuild after replacing a drive. It also added a very important capability: Dual Disk Redundancy

See: What is Dual Disk Redundancy?

This is very important because, without it, when (not if!) a drive fails, during the time it takes to rebuild on to a new drive, any other drive failure will cause loss of data. With drives becoming larger and larger (I upgraded mine, rebuild time also increases. If you buy multiple drives at the same time, you increase the likelihood of getting multiple units that have the same flaw from a bad production run, which increases the odds of a multi-drive failure.

It may seem unlikely, but from reading many articles about RAID systems over the years, it’s far more common that I would have thought.

I have worked around this over the years by always having multiple drives and backing up my important data between them. Thus, on my two Drobos, I have my most important data copied to each unit. This way, even if a Drobo completely died on me, I still have my data on the other one. (It’s also good to have backup hardware in case of a failure. I can swap my drives to the still-working unit and get to anything I need while I wait for the failed unit to be repaired/replaced.)

Of course, this doubles the hardware cost…

With Dual Disk Redundancy, you can set up a Drobo to protect data in a much better way. Normally, every bit of data exists on two drives/ if one drive fails, there is always a another copy. With Dual Disk Redundancy, the data will exist on three drives, so if two fail, you still have a copy.

The problem is … you lose storage space. A 4-bay Drobo filled with four 3 TB drives gives you 8.17 TB of storage for data. If you enable Dual Disk Redundancy, it drops to only having 5.44 TB available. You can see this at the Drobo Capacity Calculator:

Capacity Calculator

When the 3rd generation Drobo came out, they added Dual Disk Redundancy support, but if you were migrating from an earlier 4-bay unit, you could not make use of it unless you had enough free space available.

At some point, Drobo also started making 5-bay units,. This allowed you to have as much storage as a 4-bay offered WITH Dual Disk Redundancy enabled.

The problem is, those 5-bay units were expensive! A 3rd generation 4-bay Drobo sold for $299 or so, while a 5-bay direct-attached drive was $699! That’s quite the premium just to get one extra drive bay.

This changed last October when Drobo announced the new Drobo 5C.

Drobo Releases World’s First Self-Managing USB-C Storage Solution

At $349, it’s a much better value. It ONLY has a USB-C port, and comes with a cable to plug that in to a USB 2.0/3.0 port on your PC/Mac, so if you preferred Thunderbolt, SATA or FireWire, you are out of luck.

I will soon be receiving a unit to review, and will begin a multi-part article about migrating from a 4-bay Drobo to the new 5-bay 5C model.

More to come…


More tech whiners: Dongles

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana

Tech pundits are complaining about new Macs that only come with a USB-C port. “We have to have dongles for everything!” And the sky is falling.

I think back to 1998, when the original Bondi blue iMac came it. It had no floppy drive. It has no parallel printer port. It had no RS232 serial port. It had no ADB (some kind of Apple port; I never had any Apple stuff before the iMac so it meant nothing to me).

To hook up a modem, you needed a USB adapter (much more than just a dongle).

To hook up a parallel printer, you needed a USB adapter.

To hook up a SCSI hard drive, or a serial mouse, or an ADB accessory, or anything else … you needed a USB adapter.

And I remember that the Tech Whiners whined about this back then, too. And there was pain. USB adapters were expensive and sparse.

But today, USB is on everything. No more dongles are needed.

You know what I bet? I bet USB-C will do that same thing, and soon everything will just be USB-C.

We’ve been down this road before, folks.

Can you imagine how many different ports you’d need on your Mac (or PC) if this had not happened? I guess that’s what the Tech Whiners want…

Next time … keyboards.

Tech whiners and the iPhone headphone jack. Plus, big phones.

I have listened to tech whiners for years, and am always amused at how wrong they end up being when the rest of the world ignores all their concerns and embraces something that “can’t possibly work.” Tech whiners said the iPod was a stupid idea (I think I would have agreed – who would spend that kind of money to play music?). Tech whiners said the iPhone was a stupid idea (I disagreed on that one; I’d been using a “smart phone” PDA without a physical keyboard since 2000 and was hooked). Tech whiners said Apple Store was a stupid idea (I might have agreed on that one, but knew the other solutions – store-within-a-store at CompUSA – were stupider ideas). And the list goes on and on.

Now I have to listen to pundits bitch and moan over Apple removing the headphone jack from the iPhone 7. Well, I don’t have to, but it will be difficult to escape it. Whine whine whine about needing an adapter.

Guess what? This is nothing new. Every pair of nice “real” headphones I have — you know, the full size ones you use when music matters, or when you are doing music recording — have 1/4″ headphone jacks. Those are/were industry standard. In the olden days, they plugged directly in to my multi-track cassette recorder, then later my Roland VS-880 hard disk recorder, and anything else I had.

In modern days, my MacBook has a 1/8″ jack, and since GarageBand (was that also a stupid idea?) has killed all my old recording tech, I had to get a cheap adapter from Radio Shack (back when it still had the space in the name) to make this possible. Thus, I kept all five pair of my old headphones, and have an adapter so I can keep using them on modern equipment with the tiny, fragile (and far easier to snap/break) 1/8″ headphone jack.

And guess what? That adapter has been on the end of my big headphones for the past decade. I have never lost it. You just leave it there.

Problem solved.

Whine, whine, whine, but this is how audio folks have done things for decades. Apple gives you an adapter with the new iPhone, so just plug it in to the headphones you’d normally use and you are done. “What if I lose my headphones?” You no longer need the adapter 😉
Yep, if you lose something, you lose it. How is that Apple’s (or Radio Shack, or Samsung, or Disney) fault?

Whiners amuse me.

BONUS: I hear so many people complain about how bulky these big phones are because they “won’t fit in my pocket.” Guess what? Years ago, all phones were big. They came with (or sold separately) cases that had belt clips. You carried your phone on your belt, and you never sat on the phone and bent it, and you never sat down and had it hurt your stomach.

This problem was solved long ago. Thing of all the phones that could have been saved from broken screens or being bent or even lost because people constantly set them down … If they just kept them on their belt.

Oh, but that would be tacky. Strange, we do a bunch of tacky things every day now, but since “everyone does it” no one seems to be bothered by it.

Millions of dollars a year of damaged and lost phones might be eliminated if folks would use the solution we had twenty years ago…

But, hey, whining is fun.

Apple’s hold music, and Apple Care+ procedure.

Many things that are very simple and obvious ideas were, at one time, uncommon or non-existent. Obviously a touch screen display makes sense today, but perhaps not so much before the iPhone was introduced in 2007. Anyone who ever used the then state-of-the-art World Key Information kiosks at E.P.C.O.T. in 1982 knows that touch screens have been around for decades, but multi-touch was one of those breakthroughs that we take for granted and expect today.

I recently called Apple and ran in two things I had not encountered before but was such an obvious idea I expect everyone is doing it this way and I just did not know.

First … Their automated system, when informing me there would be a short wait for a representative, gave me a choice of three types of hold music, or silence. I could choose modern pop songs, classical, or jazz.
I know I am not the only one who has made jokes about lousy or annoying hold music. By giving the caller some choices (including “none”), that problem has disappeared.

I don’t know who invented this now-obvious concept, but I will now always associate it with an Apple experience.

And second … After speaking to the representative, instead of him asking me for a credit card number (which I always hate reading out aloud in a public space), he informed me that a link was sent to my e-mail and I could complete the process securely through the website.

What? No more whispering trying to read a credit card number quietly so my cubical neighbor can’t write it down and order pizza using it? What an obvious idea when calling in about a device that does e-mail.

I expect everyone does it this way, now, and I have just been under a rock. Or maybe this is new and exciting. Either way, hold music and phone transactions will never been the same for me moving forward.

On a related side note, the Apple Care procedure is very streamlined these days. To verify a device’s qualification, you can read the serial number to the automated robot, or key press in the EMEI number (if it’s a phone/data device). That let the system know about my device and tell me it’s warranty status over the phone. When the rep answered, they already knew what device I was calling about. And, when they wanted to see if my device was qualified, they had me go in to a Settings/Privacy section and a new link appeared (initiated by Apple support) which let me run diagnostics and (with my approval) share it with Apple. They were then able to tell “stuff” about my device – probably if it had detected drops or damage.


I’m going back to my rock now. All this change in one phone call is more than I can handle right now.

Another Apple difference…

I was shocked when I found an item from Apple that appeared to be in one of those plastic blister packs. I absolutely hate these things — it seems I have to tear the cardboard apart to get the memory card or whatever out of the package, forever ruining it. For anything pricy or significant, I like to keep the original packaging around so I can still have it when I sell the item later on e-Bay 😉

Why would Apple do this?

Is Apple really using a "blister pack" style package that you have to tear apart to get the product out?

Is Apple really using a “blister pack” style package that you have to tear apart to get the product out?

Before I began to tear in to the cardboard, I flipped it over to see what I was up against. It appears Apple had a better way. On the back was a hole to get the item out with a piece of plastic covering it. There was a small tab on one end which made it easy to pull…

Flipping the package over reveals Apple included an access hole, covered in a small sticker with a tab to use to pull it off.

Flipping the package over reveals Apple included an access hole, covered in a small sticker with a tab to use to pull it off.

The plastic cover could be rolled back easily, or removed completely.

The tab can be pulled out of the way, or removed completely, and even stuck back if you want to put the item back for safe keeping. Nice.

The tab can be pulled out of the way, or removed completely, and even stuck back if you want to put the item back for safe keeping. Nice.

Someone at Apple knew the frustration with this, and designed a better way to do it. I was impressed by this.

Anyone who has experienced a high end restaurant, custom tailored suit, or luxury car already knows there are fine details you get at the higher end. I, myself, don’t really care. They never seem to be worth the extra money for the extra “goodness” you get. But with Apple, the bits of polish seem to be everywhere – from the boxes the products come in, to the interesting ways they design their booklets or even cable straps.

I don’t know what impressed me about this silly little plastic tab and made me want to write this article, but … it did.

Drobo (2nd gen) to Drobo (3rd gen), part 5

See also: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

When we last left off, our hero (that’s me) was waiting to see if hs data survived after moving four hard drives from an old Drobo in to a new one. Spoiler: It did.

With that out of the way, let’s look at some of the differences between old versus new Drobos:

  1. The removable front plate has a logo that is now embossed/raises from the black plastic.
  2. The LEDs are much brighter.
  3. There is a power switch on the back.
  4. Drobo Dashboard gives you several new options!

Paradise By the Dashboard Light

Drobo Dashboard has a few notable improvements when browsing a 3rd generation Drobo:

Screenshot 2015-11-12 22.49.12

Drobo 3rd Gen: New System Information status display, featuring Drobo health.

Drobo 3rd Gen: New HEALTH status for each installed drive, too!

Drobo 3rd Gen: New Drive Information status display, featuring health of each installed drive, too!

Drobo 3rd Gen: New Performance status, though mine always shows 0.

Drobo 3rd Gen: New Performance status, though mine always shows 0.

And for comparison, the more limited Status display from the 2nd generation Drobo:

Drobo 2nd Gen: Much less status...

Drobo 2nd Gen: Much less status…

Under Volumes, there is now an option to create a special Time Machine volume. My understanding is that this volume will be treated as a size-limited volume, rather than the “grow until it breaks” virtual volumes.

Drobo 3rd Gen: New Time Machine volume support.

Drobo 3rd Gen: New Time Machine volume support.

The Tools display seems to be the same, except wording is different. “Turn Blink Lights On” versus “Blink Lights”, and “Shutdown” versus “Standby”.

Drobo 3rd Gen: Tools display.

Drobo 3rd Gen: Tools display.

The 3rd gen model adds a new Drobo Settings display. From here, you can set the name of the Drobo (that was possible with the 2nd gen, but was done somewhere else), Disk Drive Spindown, and Dim Lights timeout. There is also a greyed out “Dual Disk Redundancy” selection. According to a feature chart at the Drobo site, this model does support dual disk redundancy where  you can have two drives fail and still preserve data. I am unable to test that with my current unit since it was already formatted to use all the disks for storage in the previous 2nd gen model I had.

Drobo 3rd Gen: Drobo Settings display.

Drobo 3rd Gen: Drobo Settings display.

Dual Disk Redundancy is a feature I would really like to try out. You have less space available for data, but if you migrate from 2TB drives to 3TB drives, you can do this and end up with about the same amount of storage as before. This will be a topic for another time.

Next time, we’ll compare some data transfer benchmarks. How does a “faster” Drobo 3rd gen via a USB 2.0 port compare to a slower Drobo 2nd gen hooked up via FireWire? I could tell you now, but then you wouldn’t need to wait for the next part.

Until then…

Drobo (2nd gen) to Drobo (3rd gen), part 4

See also: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

When we last left off, we were waiting 440 HOURS (18 days!!!) for my second generation Drobo to rebuild after replacing a 2TB drive with a 3TB one. 440 HOURS! Fortunately, it didn’t actually take that long. I did the drive swap on a Friday evening, and it was actually complete the following Wednesday evening – a mere 120 hours later.

During those five days, if a second drive had failed, my data would have been toast. When a drive is down and being rebuilt, there is no data protection. I would be writing a completely different article is that had happened.

Faster than a Speeding Rebuild…

Spoiler: Drobo 3rd gen rebuilt in 12 hours what 2nd gen took 120 hours to do. (* Not 100% fair since I was moving a second 3TB drive in, but it's good enough for a reference point.)

Spoiler: Drobo 3rd gen rebuilt in 12 hours what 2nd gen took 120 hours to do. (* Not 100% fair since I was moving a second 3TB drive in, but it’s good enough for a reference point.)

One of the promises of the new 3rd generation Drobo was that it has dramatically faster rebuild times. (Skipping ahead, it looks like the newer model could have done the same rebuild in 12 hours.) On the downside, the new model does not have Firewire, so disk access would be much slower on my old Mac which only has USB 2.0. Newer Macs have USB 3.0, which is supposed to be very fast with the 3rd gen Drobo.

Since I didn’t want to spend months waiting for Drobo to rebuild as I upgraded drives one at a time, and since I feared trusting my data to a six year old end-of-life Drobo and dying hard drives, I decided it was time to upgrade. I do need to point out that I did not go out and buy a new $300 Drobo. I am far too broke for that. But, I do have one to review. If you want to get your own, you can use a special discount code and get $100 off. Go to:


You can learn more about Drobo there, and find a special “KEN100” discount code that lets you pick up a 3rd generation Drobo for $199 (plus about $20 in FedEx shipping). That would be a good price for a dumb 4-bay hard drive enclosure. (This code is supposed to be good until 12/31/2015.)

I’ll wait right here while you go do that . . .

Old Versus New

Drobo 3rd gen (left) vs 2nd gen (right).

Drobo 3rd gen (left) vs 2nd gen (right).

One week later… You should now have your new Drobo. The first thing you will notice is their package has gotten much nicer. I blame this on Apple, as they have made boring brown boxes seem downright primitive.

My old Drobo came wrapped in a black cloth bag. The new one comes in a black cloth bag that has handles on it — it’s a Drobo-logo’d version of those reusable grocery store bags! There was also a Drobo window sticker inside just like when you get that Apple sticker with a new Apple product (did I mention blaming things on Apple?). The packaging has much improved.

Everything else should be pretty similar. There is an included USB cable, and the power supply now uses a more standard power cable. The new Drobo looks the same except the logo is now embossed/raised on the front instead of just being painted on. (That’s the easiest way to tell them apart by looking at them when the lights aren’t on. More on the lights in a moment.) There is also a power switch on that back now. (Wow! I can FINALLY turn the thing off without having to yank the power cable.)

There is a warning note attached to the Drobo (and repeated in the included Quick Start guide printed on the inside cover of the accessory box). It says any drives you insert will have their data erased. What!?! I thought I read you could migrate your old “disk pack” from an old Drobo to the new one. Just to be safe, I did some searching on Drobos website and found an article that verified this was possible.

I also contacted Drobo support and they clarified: As long as the units are powered off, the erase will not happen, but if you insert the drives while the Drobo is booted, it will being the process of formatting them for new storage.

PRO-TIP: READ THE INSTRUCTIONS AND WARNINGS! Had I made the mistake of having my new Drobo powered up when I inserted the first drive, I would have lost data!

Once my previous drives (three 2TB and one 3TB) were moved over to the new Drobo, I powered it up to see if my data would survive…

Next time, we’ll find out if my data survived…


Drobo (2nd gen) to Drobo (3rd gen), part 3

See also: Part 1 and Part 2.

My 2nd generation Drobo (currently for sale on e-Bay).

My 2nd generation Drobo (currently for sale on e-Bay).

The story so far . . . In August 2009, I purchased two 2nd generation Drobos. Back then, Drobo was still a relatively new thing. I had been aware of it since the first model was introduced in 2007, but it was USB-only and thus too slow for my needs. The 2nd generation model added Firewire and I hoped I could use it for some video editing.

I populated my new Drobos with the bare hard drives I had been using separately. It took quite a bit of juggling to get all the data off various drives so I could then wipe them out and put them in the new Drobo. (I always do a zero-byte full reformat of drives before I use them. This exercises every sector of the drive and helps the drive map out bad blocks, or identify larger problems.)

At the time, Drobo documentation said if you make the device look like one huge drive, it might take several minutes to boot up. I chose to have the Drobo split itself up in to 1TB volumes. (This startup delay went away with a firmware update, apparently.) As I added drives, more volumes would appear. Over the years, I upgraded from four 500GB drives to four 2TB drives, and eventually had six 1TB virtual drives on each device. (I say “virtual” because unlike a true RAID system, the Drobo file system is flexible. It has a set amount of storage, split between the various drive volumes. You can’t actually fill each to 100%, and the Drobo suffers from severe slowdown if you fill it within 10% of max capacity. There are alot of gotchas with the magical Drobo.)

Eggs in One Basket

"Just buy another drive," they tell me.

“Just buy another drive,” they tell me.

While having to manage six volumes might seem like more work than one huge volume, it ended up saving me a number of times. I have had several instances of file system corruption on a Drobo volume where a volume would be unreadable (or not even mount). If this had happened to a huge 6TB single volume, I would have lost everything. By having it isolated to 1TB, it greatly reduced the amount of data I lost.

I tried Apple Disk Utility and a few other programs trying to recover the first disk crash, but only AlSoft’s DiskWarrior could do it. I strongly recommend every Mac user have a copy of this wonderful program. In all but a few cases, it was able to recover my corrupted Drobo volume. The one that it couldn’t is still a bit of a mystery. A support guy from AlSoft spent some time examining sectors on my Drobo and determined that the directory had been erased. Drobo support claimed they didn’t do it, and blamed Disk Warrior. Disk Warrior claimed they didn’t even modify the drive until the final stage after the data was declared recoverable.

Thus, two of my major Drobo issues: Support and reliability. Though overall they have been helpful, there have been a number of times when Drobo support was useless. Early on, when a firmware update looked like it had lost ALL my data, they provided me a special firmware version that would let me READ all my data off. That’s great if I had a few spare terabytes sitting around to copy it to. Fortunately, they figured out the problem and I was able to recover my data and continue using the device.

Let’s just say I have had quite a bit of close calls over the years with Drobo (and have lost several terabytes of data). There have been issues where the Drobo would suddenly shut off (unmounting, and not waking up), or times when it would cause my Mac to hang on startup (if plugged in to the computer) and endless other annoying issues. Web searched revealed hundreds of similar reports from other Drobo users.

Much like an abusive relationship, the magic of Drobo seemed to keep many of us involved even when we knew we probably should move on.

I stuck with my two Drobos for over six years. I put up with repeated problems that always seemed to manifest themselves when I needed to get some work done. If my livelyhood depended on them, I am sure I would have had to move on to something else, but since I was just earning some side-income as a hobby-business, I couldn’t justify the expense of a professional high-end RAID system. It seems Drobo is a consumer toy, not a professional tool.

Danger, Will Robinson

Drobo blues...

Houston, we have a problem.

Recently, a few things happened that caused me to consider an upgrade. First, one of my Drobos was regularly sending me alerts that it was in the process of rebuilding.

After about a week or so of this happening, I contacted Drobo support. The 2nd generation models had been end-of-lifed so they were no longer supported, but I was able to get the support tech to look at a diagnostic log file from my device. They wrote back:

Response By Email (xxxx) (11/03/2015 02:26 PM)

Hello Allen,

Thank you for contacting Drobo Technical Support,
I would recommend replacing the drive with the serial number WMAZA1948667 in the top bay.

We are showing that drive has 31 bad blocks and has had a full timeout.

If you have any other questions feel free to ask.

Thank you and have a great day.

Kind Regards,
Technical Support Agent

At the very least, I was going to have to replace that drive. All of my 2TB Western Digital Green drives were now out of warranty, so if one was starting to fail, it seemed likely others would too.

During my research of RAID systems, the low-cost ones I looked in to would not have worked with my Western Digital Green drives. Had I switched to RAID, I would have had to replace all my drives — an expense I couldn’t handle.

But, thanks to Swagbucks, I could at least get me a replacement drive. I decided to go with a 3TB Western Digital Red drive. These were rated for NAS devices, so they would be good for a RAID down the line if I ever ditched the Drobo.

When the drive arrived, I put my Drobo in standby and swapped out the bad drive. After a restart, Drobo then went to work rebuilding the drive and informed me how long it thought it might take . . .

440 hours!?!?!

440 hours!?!?!

Axl Rose, We Have a Problem…

To be continued . . .