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Review: DroboPro – Part I

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My new DroboPro arrived this week and so far I’m less than impressed.  As you know, I already have had a generation 1 Drobo for some time.  It has been a great device, doing exactly what I wanted.  After winning a second standard Drobo at Tech Field Day, I paid for the upgrade to the DroboPro in anticipation of a bigger and better machine.  Here’s what I’ve managed to achieve and determine so far.

Hardware
The device itself is very different.  First of all, the DroboPro accomodates up to 8 drives and so is orientated horizontally (otherwise it would fall over).  At the back, the cabling supports Ethernet, USB and Firewire.  Unfortunately the plugs are recessed and consequently removing the Ethernet cable is a pain as you can’t easily squeeze the retaining lug that releases the cable.  The power supply is now integrated into the unit and there’s no separate PSU brick.  This could present a problem if the power supply fails, as it isn’t obvious how (or even if) the integrated power supply could be replaced.  I expect that power is now integrated to make the DroboPro more datacentre friendly.  One last comment; the device is considerably more more noisy than its smaller brother, presumably because it has to cool twice as many hard drives.
Powering Up
Turning the device on is simple – there’s now an integrated on/off switch (hurrah).  I decided to move the current drives in my Drobo into the ‘Pro and see how the upgrade process would work.  This was when I hit the first non-intuitive issue.  As the device is on its side, it isn’t easy to work out whether drives should be inserted with the top metallic cover pointing left or right.  Turns out drives should be inserted with the top towards the status lights on the right.  I had to look at the instructions for that crucial piece of information.
Once the disks were in, the DroboPro went through the standard boot process while I installed the Drobo Dashboard software from the installation CD.  Here’s when I hit the next problem; I installed the software onto my MacBook as the DroboPro isn’t situated close to my desktop.  Unfortunately the CD software crashed the Mac as soon as I started to configure the device.
Eventually, I managed to connect the DroboPro to a nearby  Windows machine and deploy the latest version of Drobo Dashboard.  The CD version also has a bug with Windows 2003 Server; I needed to download and install the latest 1.6.1 release.
Configuration
The original Drobo was pretty simple to configure; plug in the USB cable (or Firewire on Gen2) and away you go.  DroboPro isn’t that simple, especially if you want to use iSCSI.  Firstly, initial configuration needs to be made over USB.  My device didn’t find my DHCP server, so I had to manually set the IP address once I was connected.  Next I needed to create some volumes.  This process although straightforward, seemed to completely ignore my volume names, leaving them all set as “Drobo”.  I wasn’t able to subsequently rename the volumes once they had formatted.
Most irritating is the way the Drobo Dashboard interacts with the iSCSI initiator on Windows.  Somehow, the software seems to dynamically add in the IP address of the DroboPro as a portal in the iSCSI definitions.  If you remove it, the setting immediately gets put back in!  I can’t find an easy way to force the Dashboard to stop binding the local machine to the iSCSI devices.  This is an important issue because the VMware configuration guide requires the configuration of the DroboPro to be completed on a management PC separate to ESX and to detach or power off the PC before attempting to connect to ESX.  I presume this happens because all the presented iSCSI LUNs are bound to a single iSCSI target and the first machine to log into that target locks it out for all other connections.
Summary
At this point, I have not yet connected my ESX server to the DroboPro (I ran out of time).  However there are some fundamental issues which are either not possible or are not documented clearly enough.  Here are my main issues:
  • USB and iSCSI Configuration – it isn’t clear whether the Drobo Dashboard can configure the DroboPro over either the USB connection or the iSCSI connection or whether USB connectivity needs to be retained for future configuration tasks.  Be aware – unplugging the USB cable seems to cause the Drobo to immediately reboot.
  • Reduced Management – if the DroboPro is to be connected to an ESX server, then the documentation indicates the USB cable should be removed.  What’s then not clear is how the  ongoing status of the device can be managed.  For example, at this point, where should the Drobo Dashboard be run from?  The lack of a permanent management console means downtime to check the status of the device, to see the current occupancy levels and the effect of adding in additional capacity.
  • Lack of detailed Information – As yet, I haven’t managed to work out where or whether there are details provided on the utilisation of each configured LUN.  The DroboPro allows for up to 16x 16TB LUNs, which is a huge volume of data (although ESX only allows iSCSI LUNs up to 2TB).  I’d like to be able to work out which of those 16 volumes consumes the most physical compared to logical space, especially with ESX where the Drobo’s intelligent file system aware technology currently doesn’t apply.
  • Multi-Drobo Management. I have more than one Drobo device now (DroboPro, DroboShare & Drobo).  The dashboard doesn’t appear to cater for multiple devices managed from the same machine.
The original Drobo was (and still is) a great device.  I’d rather hoped that by adding the “Pro” moniker the DroboPro would be a step up in terms of features and management.  As far as I can tell it isn’t.  There are other devices on the market that provide better functionality with easier interfaces.  To be fair, the ability to dynamically increase capacity over time is a compelling one, however I don’t think that feature alone justifies the choice of a DroboPro over other more feature rich storage devices already on the market.

About Chris M Evans

Chris M Evans has worked in the technology industry since 1987, starting as a systems programmer on the IBM mainframe platform, while retaining an interest in storage. After working abroad, he co-founded an Internet-based music distribution company during the .com era, returning to consultancy in the new millennium. In 2009 Chris co-founded Langton Blue Ltd (www.langtonblue.com), a boutique consultancy firm focused on delivering business benefit through efficient technology deployments. Chris writes a popular blog at http://blog.architecting.it, attends many conferences and invitation-only events and can be found providing regular industry contributions through Twitter (@chrismevans) and other social media outlets.
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  • http://www.datarobotics.com Brad Meyer

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for taking the time to post your experience surrounding the setup of DroboPro in your home office. As the product marketing manager for the DroboPro here at Data Robotics it’s always valuable to hear from our customers about their experiences whether they are good or not so good. I appreciate the constructive criticism and will definitely keep it in mind as we move forward. I do want to take a moment to specifically respond to some of your comments.

    You mentioned frustration with unplugging the iSCSI connection. As the DroboPro is targeted primarily for business environments, the iSCSI cable usually stays in place once it’s inserted. Having said that, our design team is aware of this inconvenience and there are plans to address in the future.

    The next item was your concern with the single internal power supply and a potential failure. In going through our support stats, I can assure you that power supply failures are extremely rare. A UPS for power conditioning will address most issues leading to power supply failure. The decision to go to an internal supply on DroboPro vs. the external supply that is used on the Drobo again has to do with the business focus and the importance of being compatible with standard cabling used in those environments. It is interesting to note that – due to the low cost of DroboPro relative to alternatives – many of our business customers choose to buy a second DroboPro and either use DR tools native on the host (i.e. VMware Storage VMotion), our DroboCopy utility, or simply use the second DroboPro as an onsite spare that allows them to quickly and easily shift the drives from the primary DroboPro in the rare event of a hardware failure that is not drive related. As we move forward with our product planning, we will be taking into consideration the concept of multiple power sources that are hot swappable.

    Drive insertion was your next item. A key desing element for all Drobos is simplicity and we therefore design all Drobo products to use bare drives that don’t require the cumbersome drive trays used by most other products. You can just plug in any SATA II drive and go. Yes, you do need to ensure that the orientation is correct for the drive before insertion and, as you mentioned, it is documented in the manual and the quick start card that comes with every DroboPro. As an FYI, it won’t hurt anything if drives are inserted the wrong way. They won’t seat fully and it will be quickly obvious that something needs to change in order to completely seat the disk drive into the enclosure.

    You next mentioned that installing Dashboard crashed your Mac when you installed it and also had a bug when being used on Windows 2003. We have since released version 1.6.6 of our Dashboard software that has resolved several issues with Mac installations and Windows 2003 so give that a try and let us know how well it works for you.

    Next was the DHCP issue. We chose not to support DHCP for iSCSI on the DroboPro to avoid the potential issues that DHCP could cause should a customer accidentally forget to set a static address once the system is up and running. It’s very important to have a static IP address for a storage system to ensure the IP address does not change once the lease is up thus causing the host system to lose contact with the storage device.

    The iSCSI issue you raise is an interesting one for sure. The DroboPro is designed for a single host environment and therefore attempts to dedicate all the Smart Volume to a single host. VMware is the notable exception and we are VMware ESX 3.5 certified for a 2 host environment. Our VMware best practices are documented in a best practice guide located at http://www.drobo.com/pdf/VMware_Best_Practices_1009.pdf. As an FYI, the newly introduced DroboElite fully supports the iSCSI multi-host environment with new features like having up to 255 Smart Volumes / LUNs and supports LUN Affinity / LUN Masking.

    As with any ongoing product development cycle we constantly strive to improve our products over time. Your feedback and the feedback from your readers is a valuable tool for us and we always welcome this type of in-depth user experience information. Thanks for being a fan of Data Robotics products.

    All the best,

    Brad Meyer
    Senior Product Marketing Manager
    Data Robotics, Inc.

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  • http://www.devtrends.com/ Aaron Gilbert

    Chris,

    I am curious to know if you have any further experience with the DroboPro and VMware ESX. The results from my testing proved the DroboPro to be far less than adequate – although I only had a few hours amongst a few days to text. I experienced a wide range of MB/sec throughput during my testing, ranging from 5MB to 50+MB, with no configuration changes at all. As a typical external storage device, as one would imagine any external hard drive, the DroboPro is pretty good. As an iSCSI target, it is lacking. Personally, I have considerably more trust in OpenFiler (and definitely OpenSolaris/COMSTAR) when it comes to iSCSI.

    As a side note, when you use the DroboPro as an iSCSI target, the USB interface no longer functions, as you mentioned. On a Windows machine, to use the dashboard, add the Drobo’s IP address to Microsoft’s iSCSI software initiator and the dashboard will work again.

    -Aaron

  • Dion

    Hi Chris,

    We’ve been having similar issues with our DroboPro out of the box. I put 2x 2TB in it. At Firmware 1.0.3 (out of the box) i had a steady 30MB/s transfer via USB, but after awhile the second HD showed a red light which shows drive failure. After checking the drive it was fine. We reinserted the drive and after it was added by the dashboard it showed drive failure again. After that we updated the dashboard plus the firmware to 1.1.5. The supposed red light now became green after reboot. All was great til we tested the USB transfer. We couldn’t get more than 5MB/s via USB. We also tested a Tera Station via USB and that went fine. Constant 30MB/s. We tested it in every way possible. We called Drobo’s support center and all we got is that after an update the Drobo had to rebuild its filestructure and that after that was done it would be back to normal. They told us just to leave the PC on. It’s been over a week and still no change. Copying 50GB’s took over 23 Hours to copy. Anyone else have this issue? I’m not getting much help from their support center.

  • http://www.brookend.com Chris Evans

    Dion

    Obviously i have limited experience, covering the devices I have. I’ve not experienced the sort of issues you’ve mentioned other than transient issues with a single drive. Have you tried replacing the apparent faulty drive? Do you have any other drives you could use to demonstrate whether the issue is with the Drobo unit or the drives? One of the things I’ve done is to remove and replace drives for testing. I’ve had no problem moving drives around as long as I wait for protection to complete. Perhaps it’s worth experimenting with other drives to determine whether the issue is with the Drobo or the HDDs themselves.

    Let me know how you get on.

    Regards
    Chris

  • Joe Perro

    I have recently had an experience relevent to @Dion. I have a DroboPro connected via iSCSI to a Macmini server. In January, after having it from 7 months, the Pro started acting sluggish — reads, writes, backups etc were going slower than expected. Then a hard drive failed. It was an old 500G Maxtor, one of 4 I moved into the Pro when I upgraded from my 4-drive Firewire Drobo. I’ve heard others say that a drive that is starting to die will reduce Drobo’s performance. So, @Dion, I recommend getting rid of the drive that has already failed in your Drobo and replacing it.

  • http://www.brookend.com Chris Evans

    Joe/Dion

    Interesting stuff. Here’s a thought. I’m not aware if the DroboPro uses S.M.A.R.T. or anything similar when determining drive status. I know that errors are logged as I had my Drobo classic replaced and the log file showed transient disk errors. I will ask Data Robotics if there’s anything they can do to change the interface to add information on potentially failing disks.

    Chris

  • michael p

    I have spent the better part of today trying to get a DroboElite to talk to a MacPro running OS X 10.6.2. At this point I am incredibly frustrated because as far as I can tell the iSCSI stuff is just broken. Add to that the fact that the documentation from Data Robotics regarding precisely how one is to configure the unit for iSCSI communication when directly connected to a host and you have a recipe for disaster and frustration. I have installed the latest 1.0.1 firmware and 1.6.7 Dashboard software to no avail. I can only talk to the DroboElite over USB. Once I pull that connection the Mac is never able to see that the DroboElite is connected via iSCSI no matter how many times I reboot the device, pull the power cord or other silly things. According to the documentation it is just supposed to work like magic and there is no further explanation including on their support website.

    Very frustrating and a huge time waste.

    Michael

  • http://www.brookend.com Chris Evans

    Michael

    What are you using as the iSCSI initiator (guessing the software which comes as part of the Dashboard)? I assume you have a direct cable between the devices? Are you able to pre-configure the DroboElite with the USB connection?

    Chris

  • michael p

    Hi Chris,

    It has been a frustrating start, but in the end it is working. Yes, I am using the iSCSI initiator that comes with Drobo Dashboard. It seems that the tech support folks at Data Robotics don’t have a lot of experience working with the DroboElite. Along the way we all learned:

    1. The Gateway setting of the iSCSI ports on the DroboElite needs to be set to the IP addr(s) of the NIC(s) on the host. Failing to do so will result in the Drobo spamming the host with lots of unnecessary ARP requests.

    2. Don’t use DHCP on the host NIC(s). This just won’t work. Set the IP addr of each host NIC that you want to use for iSCSI to be almost the same as the IP addr that you have configured for the iSCSI interfaces on the Drobo. Just change the last portion of the IP addr so that none of the addresses you use will conflict.

    3. Make sure that the IP addrs that you set for iSCSI on the DroboElite are not the same, even if you don’t use both ports. Along the way the tech support folks told me to just cut and paste the same settings from iSCSI1 to iSCSI2 as we were trying to verify that both ports worked. This cause endless headaches and unreliability (even though I never used more than one port) until they were made different. Setting them the same seemed like a bad idea to me, but I was just trying to do what I was told.

    4. Don’t use version 1.6.7 of Drobo Dashboard (at least not on a Mac). I am currently running 1.6.5 and will continue to do so until 1.6.8 is released.

    Now that it’s all working I can get a reliable 100Mbytes/sec sustained xfer rate when copying from my internal drives to the DroboElite.

    Michael

  • michael p

    As a follow up, version 1.6.8 of Drobo Dashboard has been released and it seems to work fine in my configuration that was giving 1.6.7 trouble.

    Michael

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  • Daniel Mann

    @Michael – You said that you are getting 100Mbytes/sec sustainted transfer from the DroboElite. Do you have a DroboPro also, and can you report your experienced transfer rates for the Pro?

    Anyone else have performance numbers for the DroboPro? I’m interested in iSCSI, but also transfer rates when using NFS (via DroboApps) and local eSATA connections.

    Thanks,

    Daniel

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  • Chris Evans

    Brad, thanks for the comprehensive comment! So, I understand and appreciate your comments, however I have a few specifics I’d like to address that you may not have answered directly:

    * – USB & Ethernet management. I’ve done some more work tonight and I’m pretty sure that once the DroboPro binds to a host (in my case the ESX server) that USB management appears to be disabled? Is that correct? If so, how would the DroboPro be managed/monitored on an ongoing basis (bear in mind I don’t want to detach the box from my ESX server unless absolutely necessary)?
    * – Multiple devices. How do I manage an environment with multiple Drobos? Is this supported by the dashboard?

    I’ve been looking at the implementation of iSCSI on the DroboPro. The LUNs are configured under a single target with multiple LUNs (compared to other products which present a single LUN per target). Does the Elite simply present iSCSI as multiple targets?

    Again, thanks for the comments; if you want to respond directly, Jim has my email address.

    Regards
    Chris

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