Drobo First Impressions

[Updated Sept 25, 2008: Firmware 1.2.4 was released and has improved performance over what’s mentioned here. I write about Firmware 1.2.4 here.]

Back in July I mentioned I was getting a Drobo to try and clean up my hard drive mess. I’ve had the Drobo for about a month now but haven’t posted about it because I’m still fighting with it. Overall it works fine but performance has been poor. After tweaking, there’s still a lot of variation in performance which bugs me. Drobo has said that write speeds of 34MB/sec and read speeds of 52MB/sec through FW800. I’m seeing less than half that.

My Drobo contains four 1TB Western Digital Caviar Green Drives and is connected to my Mac with FW800. Typically it’s chained with a Western Digital MyBook drive although for my testing I’ve removed the MyBook to eliminate it or the chain as a possible cause. I haven’t noticed any difference by doing this.

At one time spotlight was indexing the drive. At that time I was seeing extremely poor performance (4MB/sec) much of the time. My iTunes music files are on the Drobo and there were times where audio playback would freeze, previously unheard of on my iMac. At these times Activity Monitor would show that all disk activity had stopped. Since nothing else was going on it hit me that it might be spotlight so I excluded the drive. This helped but performance didn’t skyrocket, I would see 10MB/sec.

I had Time Machine using the drive in the beginning and there were times I noticed a slowdown and looked up and saw Time Machine was active. My Time Machine backups tend to be small as I exclude anything large and concentrate on documents, scripts and images. Once I started paying attention I noticed that things seem to be fines for many Time Machine backups but if the backup was over 150MB (roughly) the backup would slow down around the 130MB mark and overall Drobo performance also slowed. Hard to say exactly what Time Machine was doing. I set Time Machine to only run manually which helped add consistency to the Drobo performance.

I noticed that iTunes playback would stutter at what seemed like random times. This ended up not being random but happened when iTunes had downloaded something in the background (such as a podcast) and was adding it to the library. I moved the iTunes database file back to my system drive but kept the music folder on the Drobo and this resolved the stutter problem.

At this point I had done all the tuning I felt I could do and decided to start testing some file copies.

Copying a set of files (about 8GB with seven 1GB files and about 20 other files) results an average speed of about 15MB/sec with peaks at 25MB/sec. This is while nothing else is going on with the Mac.

If I start copying larger files (approx 1GB each) and I’m seeing throughput of 15MB/Sec but I then start a second copy containing many small files the overall performance of the drive (as shown in Activity Monitor) drops to a peak of 4MB/sec. Along these lines, if I start a ChronoSync job the analyze phase drops the throughput of any existing copy to a crawl. Things pick up once the anaylze is done and the file copy begins. It appears that any activity requiring rapid disk queries slows down the Drobo. It’s not just the file copy that slows, but total disk throughput drops to less than 200KB for reads (that’s not a typo, it’s KB).

When I was seeing poor performance I decided to pop out a drive and let it rebuild, to see if that helped.It didn’t. Interestingly, I did didn’t see a degradation in performance during the rebuild process.

Early on I did try running a Parallels virtual machine off the drive and performance was OK but not great. But in this case I didn’t blame the Drobo as it didn’t feel much slower than back in the days when I ran it off the system drive. I’ve been running my VMs off a dedicated external firewire drive for awhile now and didn’t expect this to change.

At this point in time I’m planning rebuilding the Drobo. Partly to see if it helps and partly to reconfigure it before I get too far in. While I’m not very happy with the performance I’ve decided to keep it and either see if things improve or rethink how I’ll use it. Combined with the poor small file performance it appears the Drobo has a harder time processing many files in a small time frame. It may not be suitable for me to use for live files.

Once I rebuild the Drobo I’ll do some more performance testing. If things don’t improve I’ll use it as a backup drive only. I had planned to use it to store my active photo libraries, active iTunes library and some other files. Instead the active copies of these might reside on my Windows Home Server and I’ll back them up to the Drobo. At this point I get better performance accessing my Windows Home Server over the wired network than I do from the Local Drobo. When I rebuild the Drobo I’m going to withhold a couple of drives so I can add them to my Home Server if I go that route.

Drobo Support

I haven’t contacted Drobo support yet since I’m not really at a point where I can say the Drobo is defective, but their support structure is worth mentioning.

The Drobo comes with a 1 year warranty (short in my opinion) with additional years of “Drobocare” costing $49/year. Drobocare is like an extended warranty that includes software upgrades. Critical software fixes are always available, but feature updates require Drobocare.

They do have a online support forum but it’s restricted to current owners. To access the forums you must register and provide a serial number. But these aren’t official support forums where Drobo support techs will respond to questions (although some may do so). It’s community based support so the serial number requirement doesn’t make sense to me. It prevents potential buyers from browsing the forums. Since forums generally talk about problems but most press is positive this may be the reason.

The Future

I had hoped to use the Drobo as my primary drive for pictures and music while using it as a backup for other files. As it turns out I may go with it as strictly a backup drive.

I plan to rebuild the drive and tell it to create a 16TB volume. This will allow me to continually expand as larger drives become available and not have to worry about partitioning the drive. It’s currently set to 4GB. The only downside to the larger partition seems to be the boot up time although I’m not seeing anywhere near the 4 minute bootup time that was estimated for my 4TB partition (it’s faster).

Then I’ll create a small 300GB partition for time machine. Like I said, I back up very little through time machine and in two months it filled about 100GB so 300GB should be fine. I’m giving Time Machine it’s own partition so it doesn’t just keep expanding forever. Everything else will be one partition.

My main disappointment is how erratic performance has been. While it’s been mentioned that the Drobo can be used as a boot drive I’m not sure I’d like the performance.

Hopefully with the Monday holiday I can have the Drobo rebuilt by this time tomorrow. Although if the speed doesn’t improve it’ll take awhile to copy those files back.

GoToAssist Express

GoToAssist Express Logo

I had a call from my father earlier today, he was having email problems on his PC. Rather than drive out there, or fight with instructions over the phone, I decided to look into remote control solutions. I can across GoToAssist Express which is currently free since it’s in beta. It’s from Citrix and I’ve been a fan of a couple of there other products (GoToMeeting and GoToMyPC) so I decided to check it out.

Registration was simple, they only ask for a name and email address. The email includes a confirmation link which must be clicked but then I was ready to install the software. So even though it’s beta there’s no sign-up delay.

To run GoToAssist Express as a console session the computer needs to be running Windows XP or Windows Vista. I ran the console with Windows XP under VMware from my Mac. Client PCs (the ones being remoted into) can be Windows XP, Windows Vista or Mac OS X 10.3.9 or later. I connected into a PC with Windows XP SP3.

Setting up the remote session was easy. When I start up the console I was prompted with the session information:

The url can be emailed with the email button or the URL can be copied to the clipboard and sent another way. In this case I pasted into my web email (since there’s no email configured for me on Vista) and sent it to a second address for my father. (If he didn’t have the second email he could have entered the code on a website.) The link downloaded and installed the software then connected his PC into the session. He needed to approve the connection before it would happen.

Responsiveness was good. There was a bit of a trailing mouse issue which was a bit annoying but this was resolved by turning off “show remote cursor” in the preferences. I didn’t use any of the more advanced features such as file transfers or reboots.

One of the features I liked was that the default behavior was to require the person on the remore end to confirm the connection and the software would be unloaded when the session was done. There is the option to set up unattended support but I don’t really like to leave software running all the time (that PC already has enough) and I really don’t want to leave remote control software running all the time.

It seems like the beta is ending soon so it will soon begin to cost for use. Citrix says beta testors will get a discount. The service won’t be cheap. Pricing is $60/mth, $660/yr or $10 for a 24-hr day pass. The day passes don’t include the ability to set up unattended support.

All-in-all I was happy with the service. It was easy to setup on my end and easy to explain to my father how to start it up on his end, no walking him through dialogs and settings.

LogMeIn is a competitor with a wide range of remote control products including a free version that provides basic remote control. The reason I didn’t try it is I would need to install the software on my father’s PC – from their instructions: “You can only download LogMeIn Free and Pro onto a computer at which you are sitting.”. With GoToAssist Express all my father had to do was click a link.

Corsair Flash Voyager USB Drive

Corsair Flash Voyager graphic A couple of months ago I bought the 32GB version of the Corsair Flash Voyager drive and I love it. While I can only compare it to low cost competitors it’s faster than any other drive I’ve used. My cheap-o PNY flash drive copies at about 4.8 MB/s while the Corsair copies the same files over twice as fast, anywhere from 9 to 13 MB/s. (That’s not a true benchmark, just a comparison copying files while my system is in use.)

I primarily use the drive to move video files between my Mac Mini and my iMac. It’s better than 802.11 wireless and I’ve been using the Mac Mini to digitize my media. No problems or lost data.

Everything about the drive gives the impression of a solid build. The rubber coating makes it easy to hold although it does make it wider than other drives so it may have problems plugging into USB ports in tight spaces. It comes with a USB extension cable to deal with that although it’s probably not something you’d want to carry around. It comes with a substantial neck strap which has a metal clasp. The only potential weak spot is the rubber loop that the metal clasp hooks into on the drive. It seems that if the drive gets caught on something and is pulled by the strap it’s the rubber loop that will break.

Another drawbacks is that the activity light is only visible on one side of the drive. So, depending on your setup, it may not be visible. The rubber cap is a separate piece and held on via friction. It bounces nicely, and silently, when dropped and seems destined to get lost. It has loosened up just a bit since I got it but it still stays on solidly. I also have a bit of a concern about the rubber getting mushy if exposed to heat although I haven’t had any problems carrying it in my pocket.

While I can’t compare it to other quality USB drives I’m quite happy with it and recommend it. I’m so happy I decided to take advantage of some discounts and rebates and just ordered the 16GB version.

Corsair is offering rebates through the end of August – $30 back on the 16GB model and $40 on the 32GB version. Unfortunately these are mail in rebates, but they are significant.

NewEgg.com is also offering $5 off using promo code EMCAJCBBB through August 27th on the 16GB Flash Drive. The e-mail ad also indicated this was “while they last”. This brings the pre-rebate price down to $60. Amazon has a better every-day price (without the NewEgg promo code) charging $63 for the 16 GB Flash Drive. Both places offer free shipping on the drive and have the rebate forms available online. If it’s the 32 GB version that interests you, Amazon has a better price on that, charging $120 compared to NewEgg’s $125.

Another MobileMe Extension From Apple

MobileMe box graphic Apple has extended MobileMe subscriptions for an additional 60 days. My paid subscription expired recently and I’m currently running under the previous 30 day extension, with 20 days left. Things may change after the latest 60 day extension, but I still plan to leave MobileMe when my subscription expires.

Shortly before I received the latest extension notice I had cut the cord completely with MobilMe and stopped usingĀ  iDisk, the last MobileMe feature I was still using.

As I previously mentioned, I’d been trying out SugarSync as a potential iDisk replacement. The short version of the results is I won’t be keeping SugarSync past the trial either. It worked fine, with only a few minor quirks, but it just never worked itself into my daily workflow.

With Leopard Apple introduced the Sparse Bundle Disk Image format. The main reason was to allow Time Machine to efficiently back up these disk images by only backing up the changed data. I tried syncing a Sparse Bundle between two Macs using SugarSync but it didn’t work. The destination Mac just received a bunch of 8MB files.

I’ve moved on from SugarSync to Microsoft Live Mesh. Yea, makes no sense. They teased a Mac client a couple of weeks ago but it’s still Windows and Web only. Since it’s Windows only it’s obviously not a replacement for iDisk but it is intriguing and I like what I see so far. Of course, I’ve been using it for less than 48 hours. It’s still in the “Tech Preview” stage so there’s plenty of “coming soon” messages and some strange behavior in spots.

If all else fails, I can always fall back to ChronoSync to copy files from mac to mac.