An Easy Way to Back Up, but It CostsNY Times Oct 17, 2012 Back to press
Hold up your right hand, look this page straight in the eye, and answer truthfully: At this moment, is your computer completely backed up?
Did you answer “yes?” Congratulations, you statistical freak. Skip to the next article.
If you’re like the huge majority, however, your backup is out of date or nonexistent.
And that situation is getting more dire every day. The world wants us to snap more pictures, download more movies, play more music, shoot more video. Well, great. But if something’s worth snapping, downloading, playing or shooting, then it’s also worth backing up.
So you buy an external hard drive. And another. And another. After a while, your desk looks like mine, festooned with a hideous archipelago of mismatched drives, each with a cable and a power cord.
And by the way, those drives are not, themselves, backed up. Most contain the original files I’ve offloaded from the computer for long-term storage. If one of those drives dies, I’m out of luck.
Boy, does Drobo have a suggestion for people like me.
See, corporations don’t go buying external drives from Best Buy. They use RAID arrays (Redundant Array of Independent Disks). That’s a passel of drives congregated inside a single metal box; clever software makes them look to a computer like one big drive. Or three smaller ones, or 50 little ones — however the highly paid system administrator decides to chop them up.
As a bonus, thanks to a fancy encoding scheme, the files on a RAID system can be recovered even if one of the participating hard drives goes to the great junk drawer in the sky. (That’s why it’s R for “redundant.”)
For several years now, a company that calls itself Drobo (short for “data robotics”) has been pursuing a single dream: make RAID arrays for noncorporate people. High-end types, small businesses and creative professionals with little technical expertise and no technical staff.
And next week, it will offer two new models: the Drobo 5D ($850 list) and the Drobo Mini ($650).
A Drobo is just a sleek, glossy, black empty shell. You have to buy internal hard drives to insert like cartridges. Online, for example, you can snag a couple of 2-terabyte drives for $110 each. That ought to hold a few baby pictures.
Once the drives arrive, you start to understand the nosebleed Drobo price tag — because there’s no setup or configuration. You don’t even have to attach the drives to rails or caddies or fiddle with screws, as you do with professional RAID systems; you just shove them in like frozen waffles going into a vertical toaster. The Drobo automatically assimilates them into your increasingly large virtual drive.
Also unlike most RAID systems, the drives you buy can be different brands, speeds and capacities; Drobo is an equal-opportunity enclosure.
The Drobo 5D has slots for five drives — standard 3.5-inch, SATA internal drives, which these days come in capacities up to 4 terabytes each. The new Mini, the first Drobo that could be called portable (7 x 7 x 2 inches, suitable for peripatetic video editors and photographers), has four slots. They accept 2.5-inch laptop drives, which, these days, offer a maximum of 1 terabyte each (about $80).
Here’s the big payoff: As your life fills with files, you can fill your empty slots with more drives. Once you’ve filled them all, you can eject one of your smaller drives and replace it with a more capacious one. None of that requires copying files, reformatting a drive or managing anything. The Drobo system automatically recognizes new drives and makes them, too, part of the suddenly larger virtual hard drive. This breezy, suit-yourself flexibility is unheard-of in traditional RAID systems.
Here’s the other payoff: Drives die. When that happens, you don’t lose any data. In its RAID-y way, the Drobo auto-reconstructs everything that was on the corpse drive. You keep using all your files as if nothing had happened, even as the Drobo starts redistributing your files so that they’re protected against another drive failure, which can take hours or days.
Drobo’s trade-show reps are fond of this parlor trick: As a movie plays from a Drobo, they eject one, then two drives, simulating crashes of those disks — and the video doesn’t skip a frame.
Now, so far, this description could apply to all Drobo models; they’re distinguished primarily by the number of drives you can insert (4, 5, 8 or 12) and the kinds of connectors to your computer they offer (Ethernet, FireWire, USB, iSCSI). Each has a magnetically attached front door, a color-changing status light (“all is well,” “getting full” or “dead drive — replace me”), and horizontal blue lights that serve as a “fuel gauge” for your virtual drive’s capacity. On the Mini, the status light is a cool glowing band of light around the margins of the front panel.
What the two new Drobos add are Thunderbolt connectors, which hook up to recent Mac models. They also offer USB 3.0 jacks for connecting with Windows machines. (Both kinds of cables come in the box; at these prices, they’d better. Then again, a Thunderbolt cable alone costs $50, so it’s a nice thought.)
The point is speed: USB 3.0 is about five times as fast as USB 2.0, and Thunderbolt is about twice as fast again.
Copying a 2.3-gigabyte folder of music files from a MacBook Air to a Drobo 5D took 35 seconds over the USB 3.0 connector, 19 over Thunderbolt. Backing up a single 520-megabyte video file took 5.5 seconds over USB 3.0, 3.5 over Thunderbolt.
The 5D and Mini also offer a slot for a solid-state drive (basically, flash memory, with no moving parts) that it uses for acceleration. If you install one, the company says you’ll notice that large libraries of photos or music will get faster the more you use them. The SSD stores smallish data bits — photo thumbnails, music album data, and so on — so they’re delivered to your computer much faster.
If you’re rich, you can fill the Mini’s drive slots with expensive but fast SSD’s instead of traditional hard drives.
Now, there are some noteworthy flies in the Drobo ointment. First, the price is steep; at $850, the Drobo 5D costs $250 more than the Drobo S (an identical model except that it has FireWire instead of Thunderbolt and lacks the SSD slot).
Second, these babies connect to one computer, not your whole network. You can access it from other machines using Windows or OS X file sharing, but that requires the main computer to remain turned on.
Third, any storage or backup that’s right there in your home or office is vulnerable to fire, flood or thieves.
Finally, the data protection in RAID systems requires a huge sacrifice in disk space. On a Drobo, you lose the storage of your largest entire drive (the calculator at http://j.mp/V5hhTc shows how much you’ll lose). If you buy four 1-terabyte drives, for example, you wind up with only 2.7 terabytes free for your storage. The rest is used to protect that data.
Pessimist: “One whole drive sacrificed? What a ripoff!” Optimist: “A complete backup of my files that doesn’t require double the space? Amazing!”
(Drobo also lets you turn on an option that maintains all your files even if two of your drives fail. As you’d guess, this option requires an even greater storage sacrifice.)
Now, clearly, a Drobo is absurd overkill for many people. If everything in your world fits on your computer’s built-in hard drive, one cheap external drive may be all the backup you need.
But if you traffic in drive-busting files like photos, music and videos, or if losing your files would kill your small business, a Drobo might make good future-proofing sense.
In either case, that’s enough reading. Go home and come up with a backup system that you’ll actually keep current.