16TB: My First Drobo

Digital video production is a constantly evolving process: increased resolutions, higher frame rates, and greater color depth can add tremendous opportunities for flexibility in post, but these significant benefits place serious demands in any post-production environment, particularly on lower-budget shoots.

Having recently moved into an ‘experimental’ phase of 4K production (motivated primarily by local productions using the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K), I found my RAID storage array (a cluttered collection of external USB 2.0 drives networked through a Mac Mini) to be woefully underpowered, delivering a meager 40MB/s to my various devices, though providing the crucial level of dual redundancy (meaning a single drive can fail, and a backup exists in its place) necessary to maintain peace of mind in a digital world.

To be specific, 24fps Blackmagic 4K (technically UHD) clips record in 10-bit ProRes 422 at 88.3MB/s, eats up a staggering ~5.3GB/min, which fills up a 240GB SSD mag with a mere 37 mins of footage. That’s right… a Blu-Ray would only hold 9.5 minutes of 10-bit 4K.
Note: That’s just the ProRes format; I’m not counting the (just released!) firmware update enabling 12-bit compressed CinemaDNG RAW, as I’ve yet to get my hands on it.
(200MB/s? Yikes!)

While 40MB/s was fine for cloning/editing compressed H.264 from Canon’s 5Dm3, I soon yearned for more throughput, due to the release of the 5Dm3 MagicLantern RAW mod, which shoots 1080p somewhere in the neighborhood of 90MB/s, though management/playback/editing of these frames is a bit of a hassle to achieve outside of DaVinci Resolve. Dumping cards (‘mags‘) between takes, multiplied by 2-3 cameras simultaneously rolling, you start to consider/appreciate migrating/investing in pricey USB 3.0 and/or Thunderbolt devices.

Getting to the point- a while back, Amazon had a sale on the Seagate 4.0TB external USB 3.0 drive, and I managed to snap up four of them. While these storage boxes stack fairly easy, I’ve had mixed success running several USB 3.0 devices off a single hub, suffering several nail-biting disconnections when the cables were bumped or shifted. Further, I looked into purchasing a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) which is basically a big honking battery that prevents data loss from blackouts, brownouts, or other weaknesses in the power grid that could bring whole systems crashing down.

Seagate Drive
$130-ish on sale. Normally $150 for now.

With curious timing, Drobo (a company that specializes in offering simple RAID-like external storage devices) announced their latest release: a 4-bay USB 3.0-enabled ‘BeyondRAID’ external enclosure with a built-in battery backup. My primary interest in Drobo was their claim of hot-swappable redundancy; if/when one drive fails, a new drive can be swapped in to replace it, and your data will remain intact- including being accessible throughout the rebuilding process (a fully automated procedure- points for simplicity!)

Too good of a deal not to investigate-

Preordered in April and received early June, unpacking the Drobo took all of two minutes. A handy six-step graphic instructed me to install the ‘Drobo Dashboard’ software/taskbar icon on my host computer (a current Mac), then insert bare drives into the unit, before powering up and formatting the array using simple step-by-step onscreen instructions.

Drives 'n Drobox
Stacked Seagate External drives compared to the Drobo.

I had a extra step in this process: extracting the bare drives from their factory enclosures… nothing a spare library card/guitar pick and helpful YouTube instruction couldn’t crack.

Safely opened enclosure; takes 2-4 minutes.
Safely opened enclosure; takes 2-4 minutes.
Bare drives ready to load.
Bare 3.5″ drives ready to load.

The front of the Drobo is magnetically attached; it pops off with just the right resistance, and bare disks slide right in. The whole loading process took under than a minute.

Slides right in.
Pretty simple.

Flipping the rear power switch, the Drobo took roughly 45 seconds to boot, and after connecting the supplied USB 3.0 cable, another 30 seconds passed before the ‘Drobo Dashboard’ app recognized its presence.

"All systems operational-"
“All systems operational-“

While four 4TB drives would normally equal ~16TB of useable space, the Drobo unit pools the available data (14.55TB actual), and when subtracting for redundancy, the final available capacity rounds out to ~10.86TB useable.

Dat math.
Dat math.

All four drives were then accessible through one cable, capable of single-disk loss protection and bonus battery protection. What more could one ask for?

Performance Result:
Using the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test (free) each Seagate drive reported a read/write speed of around 158MB/s read, 155MB/s write over USB 3.0, while the final Drobo configuration registered a healthy 225.3MB/s read, 180.6MB/s write- more than enough for my current ProRes 4K workflow.

4K 10-bit capable.
4K 10-bit ProRes (4:2:2) capable.

Further, the Drobo dashboard application offers many noteworthy features for configuration- my favorite being:

  • Dual-disk redundancy: While initially configured to operate perfectly under single-disk failure, the unit can be configured to survive a two-disk failure, though this sacrifices overall capacity in the process.
  • Indicator Dim: The Drobo sports several helpful LED lights on the front, offering up a ‘health-at-a-glance’ view for disks that are healthy (green), need attention (yellow) or requiring replacement (blinking red). These lights have 10 levels of brightness- a pivotal option for OCD editors like me when the device is visible from my workstation
  • Mac users can create a volume specifically for Time Machine backup; Time Machine normally expands until the backup volume is full, so this step keeps possibly rampant backup under control.

Overall, the new Drobo has proven fast, relatively quiet, and quite helpful in solidifying my backup strategy into one central unit.
For those overly cautious/paranoid users out there who want another layer of security, one can easily sign up for affordable cloud backup services (like Backblaze) and take advantage of their infinite storage capacity by backing up their entire Drobo to the service.

For those options, it helps to have Google Fiber.