Review: Drobo 5D
December 14, 2012

Review: Drobo 5D

PRICE: $849, system tested

By Larry Jordan

I am a firm believer in ethical product reviews. Drobo has been a past sponsor of my Digital Production Buzz podcasts. I also currently own a Drobo. I have eagerly looked forward to the Thunderbolt-based Drobo 5D since it was first announced last July. Recently, the good folks at Drobo offered to send me a 5D for a few days to review, and I've spent the last two days working with it.

For my testing, I used a one-year-old MacBook Pro with 8GB of RAM and OS 10.8.2. I used both the AJA System Test utility and Activity Monitor to measure data speeds. The Drobo 5D is an easy-to-use, expandable RAID-5-like device that provides capacity, data protection and performance sufficient for almost every video editing task. It is not the fastest RAID available, but for most editors, it doesn't need to be.

I've used and reviewed Drobo storage for several years. My first Drobo was the original FireWire, five-bay unit, which I've since given to my son.

Currently, my company uses a maxed-out DroboElite, which I purchased about a year ago. This is attached to our network switch via iSCSI and accessed via Ethernet as network-attached storage (NAS).  While I am grateful for the 18TB of online storage space, the performance of the DroboElite over the network is too slow for video editing.

Video editing is THE most taxing task we can do on a computer. It demands fast computers, fast storage and extremely efficient system components to handle the massive amounts of data flowing through the system in real-time. However, the heart to efficient video editing lies in the storage system.

Drobo is justifiably famous for manufacturing gear that is easy to use, expandable and allows you to mix-and-match drives as your resources allow.  It is impossible to overstate how unique this flexibility is in the market today. All other RAID vendors require you to decide total capacity when you buy the RAID, and any upgrades require getting all new hardware.

NOTE: The Drobo 5D is similar to a RAID-5. Read this for a description of what RAID levels mean, as well as other general definitions. Drobo uses a technology called "BeyondRAID.”

The Drobo 5D arrived in two boxes: one containing the Drobo itself, and the other containing the hard drives to go in it. However, I didn't need the drives as I had five 2TB Seagate drives just sitting around after a recent upgrade to the DroboElite, so I used my own drives for the test.

With the exception of Apple, no one understands how to make technology friendly and accessible like Drobo. From the nice cloth bag containing the unit, to the casual writing style of the Quick Start Guide, Drobo wants to do more than make this hardware a part of your computer system… Drobo wants to be your friend.  After wading though far too many opaque setup guides, I like this approach.  Anything that decreases my stress in setting up a new piece of gear is a good thing.

There are exactly two cables to connect: power and Thunderbolt. It is impossible to screw up these connections. However, I would really like a twist-lock power connector to keep it from accidentally disconnecting simply because the cord got bumped, which happened to me during testing. The power supply is a small black box that sits on the floor.

The front cover is attached magnetically, which I like a lot. Pull the front cover off and slide in the drives. The screen shot below shows the working end of the Drobo.
NOTE: Someone was paying attention to fan noise. The unit is not soundless, but it is quiet and two people in the office commented that the fan noise had a pleasing sound to it. The Thunderbolt cable is 6 feet long, so you can move the unit somewhat away from your work area.

NOTE: While the Drobo 5D can work with half-height drives, Drobo does not recommend using them. They work fine, but they don't fit snugly. Also, while full-height drives are manufactured to meet a common design standard that is not true of half-height drives. Some hard drive vendors move the positions of the data connectors. My suggestion is to stay with standard, full-height, SATA drives, which can be found everywhere.

Drobo provides a very clear, simple, QuickStart guide to get you started in the right direction. Drives slide in easily, cables attach quickly, and the SSD card goes into the bottom without any problems.

Setup is truly simple. If I was starting with a clean system, I would be up and running in about five minutes after opening the box.

However, for me, once everything was connected and powered on, the problems started. The unit was not recognized by my Mac. Red lights next to all drives. Dead. Sigh...

This pointed out three valuable lessons:
- Always read the Quick Start Guide (which I did, by the way).
 - Always work with the latest software designed for your storage hardware.
 - The quality of a company can best be judged in how they handle problems.

I contacted tech support and over the course of the next 24 hours, I learned the following:

- Because I was an existing Drobo owner, I was running an outdated version of the free Drobo Dashboard, which is the utility used to setup and control all Drobo devices. Because the Dashboard was out of date, it could not find the Drobo 5D, so the Drobo would not mount to my Mac's desktop.
- The Drobo had outdated firmware, which was easy to download and fix using the Dashboard, once we got the right version of the Dashboard installed.
- The hard drives I was using were formatted for a different Drobo and needed to be reformatted to run on this Drobo. Again, easy, once we got the Dashboard running.
- The SSD drive shipped with the Drobo was bad. That would not affect getting the system started, but did impact overall performance.  Drobo sent me a replacement via FedEx that arrived the next day.

Once we figured out the problem was outdated Dashboard software, getting everything else to work took a couple of minutes. (In fact, during my testing, I added drives, reformatted the Drobo, and reset the entire system in a matter of 20-30 seconds.)

Personally, I love blinking lights and the Drobo has four sets:
- The green/yellow/red lights on the right show the status of each drive.
-  The green/yellow light in the lower left corner shows when the internal processor of the Drobo is busy.</li>
-The green light in the lower right corner shows when data is being transferred between the Drobo and your computer.
- The blue lights across the bottom show how full the Drobo is; they are not visible here because the Drobo is empty.

One of the new buzzwords in storage is "hybrid-drive."  This is a combination of an SSD drive for speed and spinning hard disks for low-cost and large storage. As illustrated here, Drobo has added an SSD card slot to the 5D; specifically this is the 60 GB card shipped with the unit I received for testing.

SSD drives provide a significant performance boost if you are working with small files over and over, or doing lots of database transactions.  Files stored on the SSD are accessed FAR faster than files on the hard disk.

What Drobo has done is added intelligence to deciding which files to store on the SSD. Files you use more are automatically moved to the SSD. This is the same concept as Apple's Fusion drive in that it speeds things up automatically. There's no configuration and nothing to adjust.

The chip is stored in the bottom of the Drobo and can easily be installed by the end user, as you can see in the photo above. It can just as easily be updated as larger sizes become available.

If you are buying the Drobo 5D, buy the card. You'll see why in a moment.
BIG NOTE: Because of the BeyondRAID technology used by Drobo, while adding the SSD card in the bottom slot definitely speeds performance, replacing the standard hard drives in the unit with SSD drives will not significantly improve performance. For the best balance between performance and cost, configure the Drobo with the SSD card and standard hard drives.

Using the Drobo Dashboard you can set whether you want the Drobo to protect your data in case one drive fails (the equivalent of RAID-5) or two drives fail (the equivalent of RAID-6).

Plus, you can determine how long the drive will wait before it spins down. For best performance set this to Never. For best energy savings, set this to 15 minutes. And, you can determine how bright the lights are.

One of the benefits to a Drobo is that you can start with only two drives — though I strongly recommend starting with three because the speed benefit is significant — then add more drives as your needs and budget allow. This expandability is one of the hallmarks of Drobo.

Drobo has published performance specs here:

I decided to run three tests, using two configurations:
-Three installed drives (my recommended minimum), with and without the SSD card.
-Four installed drives, with and without the SSD card.
-Five installed drives (the system maximum), with and without the SSD card.

What I did for each test:
- Install the drives into the Drobo
- Reformat the Drobo, so all drives were empty
- Restart the computer
- Run the AJA System Test
- Empty hard drives are the fastest. The fuller a hard disk gets, the slower it goes. So, I wanted the Drobo to be empty to test for the maximum speed.

My expectations were that I would see about 100 MB/second of data transfer speed per installed drive. As you can see from the table below, the Drobo fell far short of my expectations.

Two notes:
1.  Speed is highly dependent upon file size, keep reading to learn more.
2. There is "measured" performance and "real-world" performance, which I'll talk about that in the next section.

NOTE:  The SSD made the biggest difference in speeding recording to the hard disk. Unless you are working with the same media over and over, the SSD won't make much difference in playback speed.

This screen shot (right) shows the results of five hard drives running without the SSD card. Notice how the speeds improve as file size increases.

One other thing I noticed after I wrote this review. When I connect both a Drobo and a G-Technology Thunderbolt RAID at the same time, the connecting order makes a difference. If you connect the G-Technology to the computer and the Drobo to the G-Tech, there is about a 25 percent drop in write speed, and a 10 percent drop in read speed. The G-Tech did not change speed based upon connection order.

I contacted Drobo about this and they told me: "Per Thunderbolt specifications, Drobo is passing-thru traffic without impedance in your testing, where the G-Tech adds impedance in your findings." In other words, data is traveling through the Thunderbolt ports of the G-Tech slower than it is through the Drobo. To minimize this speed drop, connect the Drobo directly to the computer.

This screen shot (below) shows the results from five drives with the SSD card. The difference is striking.

As I was researching this article, I spoke with Mario Blandini, VP of marketing for Drobo about this. He said:  "Overall, Drobo is not going to be faster on streaming (read or write) than other devices in the market.  Our newest Drobos are dramatically faster than the prior generations, and fast enough for many to have a great experience using them in their workflow.  On pure benchmarking though, Drobo will not be the fastest."

I agree that the new Drobo is MUCH faster than earlier Drobos, so, rather than asking simply "How fast is the Drobo 5D," I decided to ask the question a different way: "Is the Drobo 5D fast enough for video editing?"

And here, the answer is yes, with a few qualifications. 

Let me explain.

First, I decided to see how it would do duplicating clips. In this example, I am duplicating three 31GB files using the Finder. The Drobo duplicates the files around 110MB/second, which is about the speed of an internal hard drive on a MacPro. Not bad, not great.

If you are doing regular video editing by dropping clips to the Timeline, the Drobo is plenty fast.  At most, you would need 20-30 MB/second of data, so the Drobo has speed to spare.  This screen shot illustrates an XDCAM 720p/60 clip playing in the Timeline, with about a jillion edits in it.


In other words, the Drobo can easily handle normal editing. The REAL challenge becomes multicam editing.  In this screen shot, I built an eight-angle, XDCAM 720p/60 multicam timeline in Final Cut Pro X, and edited the heck out of it.

The data rate is fairly low and the edits were smooth. Zero dropped frames. The Drobo performed perfectly.

This time, I decided to create a 10-camera ProRes 422 720p/60 multicam clip.
NOTE: ProRes 422 is the video format Final Cut Pro X uses when optimizing media during import.
Here, the data rates tripled, but FCP X played everything smoothly, no dropped frames and the Drobo had the speed to support this as well.  So, based upon what I saw, for most normal video editing tasks and multicam editing up to about 10 angles, the Drobo 5D should be fine. If you need faster performance, you should consider other gear.

However, I was never able to get performance that ever exceeded 300 MB/second.  Perhaps, when all data is stored in the SSD this is possible, but this is not a likely scenario for video editing.

NOTE: One of the reasons Drobo is slower than other RAIDs is that, in order to enable the expansion and flexibility that it is famous for, it can't use a hardware-based RAID controller. Because the RAID is built in software, pure performance will always be slower than a hardware-based RAID.

I spoke with Tom Coughlin, president of Coughlin Associates, a firm that specializes in tracking the storage industry. I asked him why Thunderbolt was so slow in rolling out.  Tom told me that it was a case of the industry needing to understand a complex new data protocol.

Also, adding to manufacture's delays is a Thunderbolt Certification process that requires both Intel and Apple to sign-off on all new storage devices.

I asked Mario Blandini about the certification process and he pointed out that both the 5D and the Drobo Mini are Thunderbolt-certified.  "When you are dealing with something as critical as storage, you really need to be sure that the hardware works properly with all the other hardware that's out there," he said.

If you are looking for the fastest-possible RAID, the Drobo 5D is not it. However, you only need that speed if you are editing large multicam events with video stored in ProRes format.

If you need to save money, buy three drives. If you want the fastest performance, buy five drives. I was very disappointed with the performance of the unit when only four drives were installed, so avoid this configuration. I also recommend against the two-drive configuration, which will not have performance sufficient for video editing.

Also, buy the SSD card. In all cases, even for very large files, this improves performance. The price of the system that I tested (remember, I provided my own hard drives) was $849.

If you are looking for a reasonably fast, highly-expandable, Thunderbolt RAID-5, the Drobo 5D is an excellent choice.