The Drobo is a wish list item for many photographers, but do you really need one? A few years ago, the compelling reason to buy one was to have more storage than a single drive could provide at the time. But with 10TB external drives available for ~$179, having a lot of storage in a single drive is a lot easier and a lot less expensive.
So what advantages does a Drobo have over using a regular external drive?
For most photographers, the main benefit of a Drobo is its BeyondRAID technology, which I’ll explain in a second. But first, let’s look at some other advantages.
Note: I do not have any relationship with Drobo, financial or otherwise.
Need 29TB of storage at your fingertips? That’s what you get when you put five 8TB drives in your Drobo. If you need a lot of storage, the Drobo makes it much easier to access and maintain all your data.
Ease of Use
Spreading your photos across multiple external drives can get complicated, and they take up a lot of desk space (ask me how I know). Consolidating all those drives into one unit gives you less to turn on and less to plug in, and it makes it easier to find your files. Having all your photos and your time machine backup all on one unit is a pretty nice thing.
BeyondRAID typically offers faster reads and writes than a single hard drive can achieve. One test I came across achieved write speeds of 230MB/s and read speeds of 400MB/s with a Thunderbolt connection. I regularly create 700-1000MB Photoshop files from high-megapixel cameras, so that could be a big time saver.
Hosting your Lightroom catalog on a fast drive will also give you a performance boost. Drobo doesn’t publish transfer speed specs, so if this is really important to you, you’ll want to do some more research.
These are all great features, but the biggest benefit of a Drobo is making your data resilient to single, drive failures.
If you are using a single external drive and it fails, you lose everything you created since the last backup. And you won’t be able to resume work until you need to get a copy of your backup onto a new drive. That means you could lose hours, maybe days, of work and it will be many hours before you can continue working.
Drobo handles these failures better. The BeyondRAID technology in a Drobo spreads your files across multiple drives in such a way that if one drive fails, you don’t lose access to your data. Drive failures become a more graceful event. That means you can keep working with no stoppages, although you should pause to update your backups just to be safe. After you’ve run your backups, you can replace the failed drive in the Drobo with a blank drive, and you can keep on working while it rebuilds its redundancy.
If you want even more protection, you can turn on Dual Disk Redundancy and your Drobo will be able to survive two hard drive failures before you lose any data. This is a feature I highly recommend.
BeyondRAID is a really terrific feature, and makes it really easy to protect your data against drive failures. For production environments that can’t afford downtime, it’s a must. But there is still a catch: A Drobo is not a backup.
Drive failures aren’t the only way to lose data. The Drobo does nothing to protect against overwriting files, deleted files, file corruption, viruses, ransomware attacks, theft, natural disaster, etc. And if the Drobo case itself fails, transferring the drives to another Drobo doesn’t always work. For those disasters, you need backups, as in really really need them.
So is a Drobo right for you? Starting at $344 for the Drobo 5C, plus an extra hard drive or two for redundancy, it does have a cost. But it will make managing your storage a lot easier and reduce downtime. If you’ve ever spent hours trying to recover files from a dying drive, or been stopped in the middle of an important project, you know how valuable this is.
About the author: Rich Seiling is the guy his friends call when their hard drive crashes and they need to be rescued. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. He has successfully stored about a million photo files for ~20,000 of his fine art printing clients. Check out his workshop and blog at CraftingPhotographs.com where he teaches photography and fine art photo printing.