A Drobo is a smart external hard drive. Instead of a case containing just a single hard drive, a Drobo contains multiple hard drives, with every bit of data stored on at least two drives. Your computer (PC or Mac) treats it like a single big hard drive, but because all data lives on two different drives (or three if you enable that setting, resulting in less overall usable space), any one drive can fail and you will not lose any data. It is the perfect way to get the advantage of an external hard drive (lots of storage at an affordable price) while also avoiding the #1 problem of all hard drives — the fact that, at some point, every hard drive will fail. It is just a matter of time. I've had a few external hard drives fail on me over the years, and after one died on me in 2015, I decided that enough was enough. I bought my first Drobo in 2015, and I've been a very happy Drobo user ever since.
A few weeks ago, Drobo sent me a free review unit of the latest generation of the basic model of the Drobo, called the Drobo 5C. (Note also that Drobo is a past sponsor of iPhone J.D.) I've been using this Drobo 5C for the last few weeks, and it works great. And as explained below, as a result of me making a stupid mistake, I even got a chance to see what happens to a Drobo 5C when a drive fails.
Hardware - the traditional Drobo features
I'll start by talking about the features of the Drobo 5C that are unchanged from prior models. Like other Drobo models, the Drobo is a black box which holds multiple hard drives. Each drive has a light next to it, and so long as the light is green, you know that the drive is performing the way that it should. If you ever see a blinking red light, that means that a drive has died or otherwise failed. Your data is still protected on the other drives, but it is time to order a new drive from Amazon or your hard drive seller of choice.
I know from first-hand experience that drive failure is not just a theoretical concern. I have had multiple external hard drives fail on me over the last 15 years, and every time it happened, it caused a lot of stress for me as I look to see if I have a reasonably current backup. But with a Drobo, the backup occurs constantly and automatically, so you don't have to worry about it.
Protection has always been one of the core advantages of a Drobo. The other longstanding advantage is the ability to grow the size of your Drobo as your needs increase. For me, my iPhone is one of the big reasons that I have needed more storage. Ever since the iPhone 6s came out, I have turned on the option to record video in 4K. 4K is a little overkill for now — I don't even currently use a TV that can show 4K — but I know that I'll be looking at home movies of my kids that I shoot today for many decades in the future. I remember being excited on my 27th birthday to get a huge 27" TV, which I cannot even imagine using today when I have a widescreen 65" screen. Who knows what technology I'll be using 10-20 years from now, so I figure I might as well create and save the highest quality video files today.
Of course, 4K video requires more disk space to store the video files. And even if you don't need to store 4K video, we all have larger files to save than we did years ago. Although I use my Drobo connected to my home computer, if you want to use a Drobo for your law practice, you know how the number of files associated with your matters proliferate every year. As attorneys become more and more paperless, we are all getting more PDF files, more JPEG files, and even videos associated with our cases, all of which take up more space. You can be sure that whatever is enough space for you today won't be enough space in another year or two.
Fortunately, Drobo can easily grow as your needs grow. Blue lights along the bottom of the Drobo show you how much capacity you are currently using up, with one light for each 10%. When you get to 85% capacity, the green light next to a drive will turn yellow, a sign from Drobo that it is time to replace that drive with a larger hard drive. If you get to 95% capacity, the light turns red. It doesn't matter if the different drive bays have different size hard drives; Drobo will just use whatever you give it. So just get a larger drive and add it, and it is OK if some of the other drives are smaller. Best of all, you don't need to worry about manually moving files from an old drive to a new drive; Drobo takes care of all of that.
Thus, with a Drobo, you don't need to worry about planning for the future. The capacity of a Drobo grows as you need it to grow. Drobo even has a handy Capacity Calculator on its website so you can see how much usable space you get when you add different sized hard drives to the different bays in a Drobo.
I use Backblaze for online backup of all of the files on my home iMac. Because Backblaze also backs up (at no extra charge) all files on any devices connected via USB, one nice thing about my prior Drobo and this new Drobo 5C is that there is a copy of all of files in the cloud. If any one hard drive fails, the Drobo 5C will protect me. If the entire Drobo is destroyed — a disaster such as a house fire, an asteroid landing on my block, etc. — I still have an online back up of the multiple terabytes of data being stored on the Drobo 5C.
Hardware - what is new in the Drobo 5C
The basic model of the Drobo used to hold four drives, and that was the model that I previously used to hold all of the files that were too big to store on the iMac at my home, such as home movies and other large video files. The Drobo 5C holds five drives. The extra drive bay means that you have the ability to hold more data. Additionally, having an odd number of drive bays means that you can sometimes increase the total available space on your Drobo just by adding one additional drive; with a 4-bay Drobo, you often need to add two larger drives to take advantage of an increase in total usable capacity.
New to the Drobo 5C is a USB Type-C connector on the Drobo itself. The Drobo 5C comes with a standard USB to USB-C cable. Chances are, your current computer just has a regular USB connector, so that cable will work great for you. But in the future, more and more computers will moving away from USB towards USB-C. (If you currently use a very new computer, you may already have USB-C.) So this Drobo works with current computers, while being ready for the future.
In theory, USB-C can be twice as fast as USB 3.0. Because I don't have a USB-C port on my computer and thus I used my computer's USB connection, I didn't notice any speed increase with the 5C versus my older Drobo. But if you have a newer computer with USB-C, I would think that this connection would be faster. As noted above, the main advantage that I see to using USB-C is future-proofing.
Drobo comes with Drobo Dashboard software that you can use to work with your Drobo. In the Dashboard, you can see specific details on drive capacity and health, dim the lights if you find them to be too bright, format drives, etc. I rarely have the need to use this software because the great thing about Drobo is that it just works, and all that you really need to do is glance at the lights on the front of a Drobo to check that all is well. Nevertheless, it is nice to be able to check in the Dashboard just to see how everything is working. And the Drobo Dashboard software lets you update the software on the Drobo itself when updates are released.
Upgrading from a prior Drobo — and the silver lining to my own incompetence
If you haven't used a Drobo before, the Drobo 5C is a great place to start. But if you have an older model of the Drobo, it is easy to upgrade. As noted above, I bought a 4-bay Drobo back in 2015. Moving to a new Drobo is just about as easy as shutting down the former Drobo, taking out those drives and putting them in the new Drobo, and then turning on the new Drobo.
At least, it should be that easy for most folks. I made a mistake when I did my upgrade. I successfully installed three of the hard drives, but for my fourth hard drive I wasn't paying close enough attention and I didn't push the hard drive all the way in. Thus, when I started up the Drobo 5C, it thought that one of my hard drives had failed, and it warned me to replace that hard drive with a new one.
At first, I was upset at myself for own incompetence. It's not like pushing a hard drive all the way in is all that complicated. Sigh. But then I realized that there was a nice silver lining; I got my own live demo of what happens when a hard drive fails and I see a flashing red light on the front of the Drobo. I'll be honest, my first reaction was a small amount of panic. I don't want to lose any of my files, especially home movies of my kids when they were younger! But then I realized that the Drobo 5C was purring along, working the way that it was supposed to work. Once the Drobo 5C finished configuring itself with the three drives that it recognized, I ejected that fourth drive and then put it into a drive bay — correctly this time. The Drobo erased and formatted that fourth drive (just as if it were a brand new drive), and then moved data from the three drives back over to that fourth drive. Once again, I had a Drobo with four working drives all with green lights. Whew! Whenever I do have a real hard drive failure, it will be nice that I already had what amounted to a fire drill so that I can remain calm and know that there is nothing to worry about; the Drobo was made to deal with these sorts of problems.
To take advantage of the new fifth bay that didn't exist in my older Drobo, I purchased a 2 TB hard drive from Amazon to add to the four 1 TB hard drives that I had been using. The drive I purchased cost only $89, and it increased my total usable space from 2.72 TB to 3.63 TB.
There is something very freeing about knowing that you have a ton of storage connected to your computer. Take all the photos and HD video that you want with your iPhone; you'll always have enough space because it is easy to expand if you need to do so. And it is even better to know that these precious files are saved not on just a single hard drive, which can fail, but on multiple drives that all work together thanks to the magic of Drobo.