Somehow over the past couple of years I started to get really paranoid about losing data. Losing data sucks. I know everyone has experienced it in some way at some point. While upgrading the computer somehow the drive main board got fried. I tried to replace the board with another one from the same type of drive but the firmware didn’t match; the drive spun up but just made some clicking noises. Thankfully I had most of the data backed up but some was unrecoverable.

I think that’s when the paranoia seed got planted.

Backups V1.0

It really started to bloom in late 2008. I decided to go all-in and get a Drobo to keep my data safe. Altogether the Drobo, a DroboShare and a pair of 1.5TB drives set me back around $800.

The theory behind the Drobo is compelling. It had a number of slots you can stick drives into. In my case I had four slots. It uses a propriety RAID that lets you add or swap drives as you need more space. It’s perfect future-proofing!

If only it worked.

First-off, the DroboShare is a joke.

  • It’s well integrated into the Drobo system.
  • It has first-class support for both Mac and Windows systems (neither seem like an afterthought)
  • Damn simple to set up
  • Has add-ons you can install to make it do other new things like stream audio and video

If it ended there it would be an unmitigated winner!

However, it’s slow. Not just a “oh, just be patient” slow, but slow to the degree of delivering less than 10% of what the Drobo is actually capable of. I’ve done tests with the Drobo connected directly to my computer versus connected to the Droboshare and sometimes the results were less than 10% of what it could actually deliver.

When connected directly I was regularly seeing 30MB/s (bytes, not bits) being sent from the Drobo directly to the computer. When a Droboshare was connected using gigabit ethernet (and a managed gigabit switch to verify everything was in fact using that speed) things rarely went faster than 3MB/s. Sometimes much, much slower even.

The next question to ask is: “did I do anything wrong?” The real killer for me is unresponsive tech support. After filing a help ticket on their web site I’ve only received one email asking for more information in seven business days (not counting national holidays). No resolutions, nothing to try, nothing.

Ok… back to Amazon it goes.

Now onto the Drobo itself. It’s no speed demon itself. Over Firewire it can only get around 30MB/s. The raw drive supports twice that — striped over the two drives reads should max out the connection. If it worked I would be OK with it — the proprietary RAID having overhead is something I can understand. What I’m buying is reliability, speed is only a bonus.

But it’s neither fast nor reliable.

It works fine if and only if you don’t have a lot of load on the Drobo. Much like if you bought a car that would only go less then 35 miles per hour — or come apart if you went faster.

If you have a lot of I/O load it will reboot itself after a few hours. You will lose data. This is something that I was able to replicate at will.

To top it off going through support is painfully slow. I opened a trouble ticket with the problem above. Over the course of the month we reformatted the Drobo from HFS+ to NTFS, attached it to another computer, tried a different USB cable, replaced the power supply, and replaced the Drobo itself. Every variable was swapped out to try to suss out the root cause. In all cases, when under load, the Drobo would eventually reboot itself. Every time it reset, the data that is was in the process of writing would be lost, leading to corrupt files.

While doing all of this beta testing for Drobo I got another 1.5TB drive to put in my computer to back up my Drobo.

Zero progress was made after a month of toil. Support was unable to fix the issue and eventually tried to ignore me.

Amazon came through and took it back and refunded my money even though I was past the return window. Amazon: +1!

Backups V2.0

This whole affair ended in February 2009. Now I had three 1.5TB drives, one in my computer (the one that was in my computer to back up the Drobo) and two sitting on my desk that used to be in the Drobo. What to do?

I started with some criteria that was even higher than what I had when I got the Drobo:

  • A drive failure and any time should never lead to data loss
  • Having all data at my house was not an option. Off-site is the way to go

The first criteria really makes sense to me and drove a lot of how this turned out. The last thing I want is to have the primary drive fail during the backup. At that point I might well have no recourse, the main drive is dead and maybe the backup is corrupt. Not a good scenario.

The scheme I came up with is shockingly simple:

  • The drive in my computer is the main data drive
  • Every week I would simply copy the contents of the primary drive into one of the external drives
  • Every Monday morning I would take the most recent backup drive to my office and come back home with the one from a week prior
  • At no point are all three drives in the same place to prevent a single-point of failure with disaster cases (fire, flood, etc.)

I got purchased a USB/SATA dock to connect the external drives to my computer. This way I don’t have to have more power bricks than I need and the drives themselves would be naked and smaller than drives with enclosures.

The copying started off using BeyondCompare when I was still on Windows, now I’m doing the same thing using rsync on the Mac.

There’s even a cool bonus with this. The drive is formatted in the same way as the primary drive; if the primary drive fails all I have to do is pop the latest backup into the computer and go! Win!