Category Archives: Drobo

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

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

See also: Introductionpart 1 and part 2.

After having a Drobo 5C for a week, I’ve decided there are a few changes that I do not like, and one that I do like…

Don’t Like

Enclosure. As previously mentioned, the enclosure is now more of an outside shell that is no longer flush against the front of the device (when the removable face plate is on). Now, when the face plate is installed, there is a small gap running all around it. It just doesn’t seem as polished of a design. Also, when my laptop is set in front of the Drobo, if I open the lid too far, it now makes contact with the metal strip at the top rather than more gently rubbing against the plastic cover as it did with the previous 2nd and 3rd generation modules.

Power Supply. For some reason, the round power connector that goes in to the Drobo 5C now has a right-angle connector at the end. This causes extra tension on the cable (and probably power connector) as the chord is pulled at an angle a bit before running straight out the back and down behind my computer desk. I really don’t care for this, but if you put your Drobo at the far back of a desk (where the power cable would then point directly down), you may prefer this.

Drobo 5C right-angle power connector.

LED Status Lights. Since the front panel no longer covers the bottom row of status lights, the lights are brighter than the rest of the LEDs behind the panel. If I set the Drobo 5C brightness to 5, and have it next to a 3rd generation Drobo also set to 5, the blue LEDs on the 5C are much brighter because they are no longer being filtered out through the clear plastic of the face plate. It also means the 5C lights behind the faceplate are dimmer than the ones below it.

Drobo 5C (left) with brighter blue lights versus 3rd gen (right) with lights behind the face plate.

Can’t See LEDs. And, if your Drobo 5C sits a bit lower, the bottom row of blue LEDs can be hidden below/behind the face place. As I look down at the 5C and 3rd gen models, I can clearly see the front panel blue status LEDs on the 3rd gen, but cannot see the bottom row on the 5C. When sitting at a lower level, I can see them both. Not a big deal, but a change. I first noticed this when I walked in to where my computer is, and thought the 5C had locked up since all the blue capacity lights were off (or so I thought).

Drobo 5C (left) has recessed bottom lights, versus 3rd gen (right) that showed them through the face plate.

If they used the same power connector as they did on previous power supplies, and had kept the enclosure design the same, I would not have anything to gripe about.


Face plate. There was one thing I did like, which I had not noticed before. In the previous photo, notice how the green drive lights on the 3rd generation (right) can be seen through the face plate. The black face plate is a bit transparent, and I had never noticed this until taking these photos. The 5C face place is opaque.

Drobo (3rd gen) transparent drive indicator lights.

Drobo 5C opaque drive indicator lights.

I expect I will have a few more things to say about this new Drobo (file copy speed, for example) so…

More to come…

Drobo 5C for $279 on Amazon

The Drobo 5C was introduced in October 2016 for $349. There has already been a $50 discount code ($299) and a one-day sale (also $299). Yesterday, the price tracking site, Camel Camel Camel, alerted me of a $279 price on Amazon:

By the time you see this posting, the price may no longer be valid, but you might consider activating a Camel Camel Camel account to do your own tracking. You will receive an e-mail alert when the desired item (anything on Amazon) reaches the price you want. It also shows a historic graph of the price the item has been since tracking began.

Merry Christmas.

Drobo volumes lose their names in Drobo Dashboard

Hey, other Drobo owners… Have you ever seen this happen?

Where, oh where have my Drobo volume names gone?

My volumes all have custom names, but occasionally I see Drobo Dashboard only show them as “Drobo”. I believe they always still show up as their proper names to Mac OS X, but Drobo Dashboard seems to have a problem reading them.

I have seen this on a 2nd generation Drobo, a 3rd generation Drobo, and on my brand new Drobo 5C (the second day I had it hooked up). I have seen it hooked to three different computers (all Macs) via FireWire, USB 2.0 and now USB 3.0.

I contacted Drobo support about this, and they asked me the typical list of support questions, which makes me wonder if I’m the only one this happens to.

Anyone else seen this happen?

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

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

See also: Introduction and part 1.

Previously, I discussed the unboxing and setup of the new Drobo 5C. Today, I will walk through the migration process from an older 3rd generation 4-bay Drobo to this new 5-bay model.

Setting up Drobo 5C is no different than the previous models… Plug in the power cable, plug in the USB cable, insert drives, then turn it on.

Since the topic of this article is migrating from a 3rd gen model to the 5C, here are some important additional comments:

  1. APPLY FIRMWARE UPDATES FIRST. The code that came on my 5C was already out of date. The first thing you should do it hook up new new Drobo (with no drives inserted!) and power it on. Run the Drobo Dashboard software and it should recognize the new Drobo, and offer to update the firmware (if an update is available). Allow this to happen, and for the unit to reboot and be seen by Drobo Dashboard.
  2. Next, you want to power down the new Drobo, and move the “drive pack” (all the drives used together) from the previous Drobo to this one. DO NOT HAVE THE UNIT POWERED ON WHEN YOU INSERT THE HARD DRIVES! If you do this, the Drobo will see the drive inserted, and format it. You must have the new Drobo powered off, and then insert all the drives at the same time, then power it up. The Drobo should boot, then recognize the drives and have the same name and volume(s) you saw on the old Drobo.
  3. FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS GIVEN ON THE DROBO WEBSITE! Don’t trust some random stranger’s website… The information I gave you may be incorrect and cause the total end of life as we know it.

Mine seemed to have some problem and it was not recognized by the computer after I did this. I had to power it down, and start it up again. It mounted just fine after that, and it showed up with the same device name and volume names since all of the information is contained on the drive pack itself.

At this point, the new 5-bay Drobo should act exactly the same as the former 4-bay model.

My next goal was to enable dual disk redundancy. When I looked at the Drobo Dashboard, the option to enable this was grayed out. I suppose that makes sense. My unit was quite full and there probably wouldn’t have been enough free space to make a third copy of all my data. However, my understanding is that as long as there is enough space available, you could switch over to dual disk redundancy. (But I may be misunderstanding.)

To get the needed space, I acquired a brand new 3TB Western Digital Red hard drive.

NOTE: When I get a new hard drive, I like to first zero-byte format the entire drive. By writing to every sector of the new drive, any severe problems can be located. I would rather spend the hours it takes to do this, than blindly put in a new drive only to find out it had some severe issue far at the end of the drive which doesn’t show up until months (or years) later when the drive finally fills up to the bad spot. (Yes, I have found bad drives this way, but only two so far.)

After I plugged in the new device, as expected, the option for dual disk redundancy was available:

Drobo 5C dual disk redundancy option.

I checked it, and the drive began the long process of migrating data so every bit existed on three different drives (thus, two could fail, and data would still be protected):

Drobo 5C rebuilding for dual disk redundancy.

It initially stay it would take over 40 hours to do this, but it was actually completed in about 24 hours. The newer Drobos certainly handle rebuilding much faster than the early models which could take all week even with much smaller hard drives.

The end result was a new Drobo with a few more volumes available and some extra peace-of-mind.

To be continued…


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:

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.

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…


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 . . .


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

In part 1, I rambled on a bit about my experience with external hard drives and I stated that next I would explain “why I chose Drobo” and that we’d “look at the 2nd generation model versus the 3rd generation model.”

I guess I should do that.

Never Enough Storage

“Just buy a larger hard drive,” people tell me. It must be nice to have so little content you want to store that you can just buy an extra drive and be done with it. As an early adopter of digital photography (I got my first digital camera in 1996), I have taken several hundred thousand digital photos over the years. With no negatives, keeping those digital originals safe is very important. I learned this the hard way when I had a hard drive failure and lost a year’s worth of photos. The only copies I had were the scaled-down and watermarked versions on my website. At least I had those!

All my earlier photos had been archived to stacks of CD-Rs, so I was able to recover most of them, but it was clear I would have to make backups more regularly just in case it ever happened again. (“Just buy more DVD-Rs”.)

And it happened again. Several times, actually. I’ve had a number of hard drives fail on me unexpectedly. Most were still “new” drives, well under warranty. While Seagate or Western Digital will promptly replace the drive, that does little for you data. ALWAYS MAKE BACKUPS! (And always check reviews. The “more reliable” hard drive brand to buy has changed a number of times of the years. I am currently using Western Digital drives, but many years ago I wouldn’t have touched a WD for anything important.)

CD-Rs Aren’t Backups

For me, my main backup strategy was making sure all my digital photos and digital video files were archived to CD-R (then, later, DVD-R). I have stacks of these discs, but, sadly, some of my earliest CD-R backups no longer read. That’s right, Virginia. CD-Rs are not “forever” media. Exposure to UV rays in light can cause bit rot. Just because you copy something to a plastic disc doesn’t mean it’s safe long term.

When I learned CD-Rs were not enough, I decided I needed to do a combination of things:

  1. Every bit of important data should be archived to CD/DVD. Even if it’s not necessarily a long term solution, it’s still important to have a backup that can’t be taken out by a power surge or by dropping a computer.
  2. Every bit of important data should exist on at least two hard drives.
qBox 4-drive enclosure (photo from their website).

qBox 4-drive enclosure (photo from their website).

I started using some qBox-F quad-drive enclosures on my Mac. I had two of them – one for primary storage and the other for backup. Each one was “JBOD” (just a bunch of disks) so they appeared are four separate drives to my Mac. Soon, though, four drives was not enough and I needed more storage. Every time I did, I had to get out the screwdriver and swap out drives and spend hours copying data back and forth. There had to be a better way.

A Better Way: Trayless Hard Drive Enclosures

iStarUSA v7AGE220-SAU enclosure

iStarUSA v7AGE220-SAU enclosure (photo from their website)

The next thing I found were trayless hard drive enclosures. They let you slide bare drives in and out without using tools. I bought a few inexpensive iStarUSA brand 2-drive enclosures. (I always like to have two matching enclosures in case one of them dies so I can swap drives out and get to my data in an emergency.) I was using the now-discontinued Firewire version for primary store (faster than USB 2.0) and had a cheaper USB-only version for emergency backup.

I also found a company that sold plastic hard drive cases that looked like old VHS rental tape cases. I ended up with a bookshelf full of hard drives. When I would copy data to one of them, I would also copy it to the second backup hard drive.

This worked quite well, but every time my collection grew I had to buy two more hard drives (primary and backup). I was hoping for a way to save some money while still getting protection. That’s what let me to research RAID-type hard drive systems.

Saving Money by Going RAID

With RAID, multiple drives are used and data is spread across all the drives. Every block of data is duplicated on another drive. If one drive fails, any data on that drive still exists somewhere else in the RAID array. This sounded like a good solution, but RAID has some limitations.

RAID systems want all drives to be of matching size (and preferably, type). If you put in a 500GB drive and a 750GB drive, the RAID would only use the largest amount that is common to all drives (in this case, 500GB – thus wasting the rest of the 750GB drive). You were also locked to that size. If a drive failed and you replaced it with a larger drive, the data would rebuild on the new drive, but it would only use the size of the former drive. Thus, you couldn’t upgrade capacity without starting over with an all new set of larger drives and copying everything over.

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

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

I ended up going with a Drobo because their non-standard “magic” was that you didn’t have to have matching hard drives. You could start with two drives of any size, and then add more (up to four) to expand. When you started running out of space, you could replace a drive with a larger one and continue to do this as needed. Drobo looked like a great solution to my ever-growing need for backup data.

Up next: Drobo pros and Drobo cons.