First Look: Drobo 5N


For the last week, I've been playing with a Drobo 5N. For full disclosure, Drobo is a sponsor of MPU and sent me the 5N so I could test it and talk about my experiences on the show. The 5N replaces a previous Drobo FS on my network. Because my primary machine is a MacBook Air, I opted for the network attached versions of the Drobo rather than the 5D which attaches via Thunderbolt or USB 3.0.

First, I should talk about how I use my Drobo. Primarily, my Drobo is used as a big pot of storage. With the hard drive on my primary Mac being a 256 SSD, I need to be judicious about what I keep on my machine. Drobo is where I store everything that I want to keep around, but doesn't necessarily need to be on my primary drive. This includes archived data for projects that aren't active, things I want to keep for reference (like 15+ hours of the original and unedited rips of my family home movies), installer disc images, various backups both of my data and my family's data (many created via CrashPlan), the MPU podcast archives, and my iTunes library. In total I have a little under 3TB of data but it's growing steadily.

I've been an owner of a Time Capsule for a while that I've used for Time Machine backups, but with the purchase of a new 802.11ac Airport likely in my future, I've questioned whether I need to spend the extra bucks for the Time Capsule compared to the Airport Extreme. Drobo has a feature where you can create a share dedicated to Time Machine backup, so I blocked off a 1TB partition on my Drobo for use with Time Machine to test out the feature. Setup was easy and right now I have Time Machine on the Drobo running in conjunction with my Time Capsule. I notice no difference between backing up to an Apple Time Capsule vs the Drobo, except that the Drobo 5N is faster than the Time Capsule. As of now, I have no plans to buy another Time Capsule and will relegate this task to the Drobo in the future.

One of the other features that drew me specifically to the 5N was the availability of Drobo Apps. Right now the selection of Apps is limited to two, Plex and Copy, but there is a community of developers who have created their own. For now, I'm sticking with the Drobo approved Apps but I immediately installed Plex. I've been familiar with Plex for a while, but wasn't really sure why it was something for me to consider until I watched Don McAllister's recent Screencast Online series on Plex. Almost all of my media is in iTunes and accessible via Apple TV, but the beauty of Plex on a Drobo 5N is that no Mac is required. So long as the Drobo is running, which mine always is, you can use the Plex App to access content both inside and outside your local network. This is great if your traveling and have a decent broadband connection. While I still prefer to use my Apple TV at home, I can use Plex in conjunction with my iTunes setup just by pointing the Plex Movie, Music and TV folders to those corresponding folders in my iTunes Library. This offers me the advantage of keeping all my data in iTunes but still have the advantage of using Plex when out of the house for access to my content.

Still on my wish-list is native CrashPlan support. While it is available through DroboPorts, when I looked it up it made me nervous. Geoff Barrall, Drobo's CEO, told me that an official CrashPlan App is high on their priority list, so I'm waiting. For now, I'm running CrashPlan on my Mac mini and I've found that as long as I mount my Drobo 5N through AFP CrashPlan will see the Drobo as a backup destination (CrashPlan doesn't typically see network attached storage, thus the reason to mount the Drobo via AFP). I have a couple of family members who backup to me as their offsite backup this way. It's a little buggy, but works most of the time. (I discussed that process in this prior blog post.)

While this isn't intended to be a technical review so I don't have any benchmarks, I will say I'm very impressed with the speed of the 5N. The Drobo FS was always "fast enough" and I never had any problems streaming HD content. But file operations such s copying multiple files or deleting files wasn't as fast as I would like. Ive found the 5N to be quite "zippy". The 5N has an Accelerator Bay that you can outfit with an mSATA SSD for Data-Aware Tiering.

Thankfully, I haven't had a chance to test the built-in data protection of the 5N, but I've previously lost drives in the FS and was pleased with how it responded. you configure the Drobo for either single or dual drive redundancy meaning you can have a drives go bad and the Drobo will automatically compensate and rebuild the array to avoid Data loss. You can also configure Drobo to send you email notification of critical events such as a drive failure. While this is a great feature, I will point out it's not a true "backup" of your data as the Drobo is still a single point of failure. As always, I recommend that you always have your data backed to a separate source. I use a combination of CrashPlan for offsite backup and a 3TB external hard drive that I clone ghe Drobo data to on a regular basis.

Overall I've been very happy with the 5N and found it a solid upgrade from the FS. I'm especially looking forward to the addition of new Drobo Apps and hope that Drobo will keep innovating in this area.

Buy Drobo 5N on Amazon (Affiliate Link)

Update December 2013: CrashPlan is now available for the Drobo 5N. It's classified as a "community supported application" but the installation isn't too bad. See this post for more information.