Thank you to Drobo for sponsoring iPhone J.D. this month and for giving me an opportunity to talk about the Drobo 5N. A few months back, in December of 2015, I wrote extensively about how Drobo works and described the Drobo that I purchased in early 2015 — the standard model with four drives simply called the Drobo. I love my Drobo because it gives me a huge amount of external storage (and is easily expandable) but also gives me the security that is sorely lacking with standard external drives. When a normal external drive crashes, it is dead, and that has happened to me on multiple times over the years. But when a drive in a Drobo crashes, all of your data is still safe because of built-in back-ups on the other drives. Just eject the broken drive, insert another one that you can buy pretty cheaply on Amazon, and you are back in business with no lost data.
Today I want to talk about the Drobo 5N, which costs $549 (without drives), compared to the standard Drobo which costs $299 (without drives). The company sent me a free Drobo 5N review unit to test, and I've been putting it through its paces for the last month. The Drobo 5N has virtually all of the features that I love with my Drobo, but is much more powerful both because of hardware and software — including the ability to run apps.
The core hardware features are the same as what I previously described for the Drobo. For example, I love the lights on the outside of the Drobo that make your drive health obvious. A green light means that the drive is working fine. A yellow light means that the drive is starting to get full, so you should consider puling it out and replacing it with a larger capacity drive. A red blinking light means that a drive has failed and needs to be replaced, but your data is still safely located thanks to the redundancy on other drives. And ten blue lights across the bottom show you how much of the total usable space is currently full.
The hardware difference is indicated by the name — 5N. The "5" indicates that there are five drive bays inside of this model instead of the four drive bays in a standard Drobo. Obviously this means that you can store even more data.
When you put two 1 TB drives in a Drobo, you get almost 1 TB of usable storage space. In that configuration, one drive is essentially a backup of the other. Add a third 1 TB drive and you get a net 1.81 TB of usable space. Add a fourth drive and you get 2.72 TB of usable space. That's what I have in my standard Drobo. Because the 5N supports five bays, you can add a fifth 1 TB drive and go up to 3.63 TB. You might think that adding a fifth drive would give you another 20% of space, but it actually gives you around 25% more space because of the way that the redundancy works. And as with other Drobo devices, you can put different sized drives in different drive bays and the Drobo just figures it all out. For example, if you have three 1 TB drives and two 2 TB drives, you get 4.53 TB of usable space. This page of the Drobo website lets you calculate the total storage you get with different drives.
Another hardware difference between the 5N and the standard Drobo — the "N" — is that the 5N connects via Ethernet to your network, whereas the standard Drobo connects via USB to a specific computer. That means that the 5N is perfect for an office environment, or even a home with multiple computers connected via Ethernet. If you want to share the data on a Drobo with others on your network, the 5N is definitely the way to go.
One cool hardware feature of the 5N is that it includes the Drobo Accelerator Bay (underneath the Drobo 5N). You can add a standard mSATA SSD to that bay and the Drobo has the ability to read data even faster because the most-used data is also stored on the super-fast SSD. Drobo recommends either a 64 GB or 128 GB mSATA SSD, and from a quick look on Amazon I think you can get those for only about $50. The 5N that I tested didn't have anything installed in the Accelerator Bay so I didn't test this feature, but it looks like a relatively inexpensive way to make the drive faster when reading data. Drobo says that you can get up to 3x the speed by using the Accelerator Bay on the 5N. I should note that in my use of the Drobo 5N, I had no trouble opening large PDF documents or even 1080p home videos; it was all plenty fast enough. But it is nice that you can easily and inexpensively get some extra speed.
If you want even more speed, instead of using high-capacity hard drives, you can use SATA SSDs. An SSD drive is much more expensive than a normal spinning disk hard drive, and the available capacities are smaller, but that will give you the fastest possible read and write speeds. In the computers that we use at my law firm (primarily Dell laptops), the office replaced hard drives in all attorney computers with SSDs a while back, and it was the single most significant speed increase that I have ever seen in a computer. To be sure, there was a space trade-off; in fact, I recently filled up my 128 GB SSD on my work computer, and that was a big reason I recently updated to a new work computer with a 256 GB SD. But if you can get past the space issue, SSDs are wicked fast, and it is wonderful that SSD is an option on the Drobo 5N if you want it.
I used to think that an external hard drive was just a hardware device, but with the Drobo 5N, that is no longer true. Unlike other Drobo devices that connect to your computer via a connection like USB and are thus dependent upon your computer, the Drobo 5N sits on the network on its own. The Drobo already has a "brain" inside of it that is uses to keep your data redundant, and with the 5N, Drobo has added to that brain the ability to run DroboApps through a feature called myDrobo.
There are lots of apps available from both Drobo and third parties, but I think that the best one — and the one of most interest to iPhone and iPad users — is the DroboAccess app. Using this (free) app, your Drobo 5N can make its files available to a device that is not on your local network. From another computer, you access your files through a web browser interface. From a mobile device, you use the DroboAccess app, which only costs $0.99 in Apple's App Store. Using this app, you can browse through the folders on your Drobo 5N and download and upload files.
The app works well, and I was able to access documents from the Drobo 5N at my house even when I was at work or out of town, and even when my iMac at home was turned off. In the Drobo configuration panel, you can create multiple users with different access rights, so certain people can have access to only certain folders in the Drobo 5N. Plus you can share specific files with specific users. Also, data transfer from the Drobo to an iPhone or iPad is encrypted end-to-end, and each Drobo carries a unique SSL certificate. Thus, your files are not just safe on the Drobo because of the drive redundancy, but they are safe during travel to your mobile device. As you can see, it is all very sophisticated and powerful, but at the same time it is super easy to use.
You can see some of the over 100 available apps on this page of the Drobo website. For example, you can use the CrashPlan app to make an online backup of the files on your Drobo 5N. Or you can use the Plex app to share media such as songs and videos with any device running the Plex app, such as an Apple TV.
With its five bays, network access and Accelerator Bay, the Drobo 5N is a seriously sophisticated hardware device. You could use it at home as I have been doing in my tests over the last few weeks, but this device is more than powerful enough for an office environment. If you were to fill it up with five 8 TB drives, you would have 29 TB of usable drive space for shared files in your office, all with built-in redundancy so that you don't lose sleep worrying about a drive failure. Remember, the question is not if a hard drive fails but when; all hard drives fail eventually. But with a Drobo, you don't need to worry about that.
And while that would be enough to recommend the Drobo 5N, thanks to the support for DroboApps, the Drobo 5N is a powerful server, and it wouldn't be inappropriate to think of it as a computer. Even if you were to use no app other than the DroboAccess app, that powerful app gives you and other users the ability to access filed stored on a Drobo 5N from anywhere in the world using end-to-end encryption.
And despite all of this power, the core features of the Drobo are simple to use. Adding and removing hard drives is so simple that a child could do it. (That's not an exaggeration; my 10-year-old son asked me if he could put the drives in the Drobo 5N for me, and he had no trouble doing it.) The Drobo Dashboard software on your computer makes it easy to configure any Drobo, including the Drobo 5N. And the obvious lights on the outside of the Drobo make it easy to see that everything is fine when the lights are green.
I love using my Drobo, and I would never want to go back to relying on a standard drive for external storage. If you are looking for external storage at your home or office, you should definitely check out one of the Drobo devices such as the standard four-bay Drobo or the more sophisticated Drobo 5N. And for a limited time, if you buy a Drobo from the online Drobo Store, and use coupon code Jeff100, you'll get $100 off.