REVIEW: Drobo B800i Turns iSCSI Storage From Complex To Simple

Setting up and maintaining an iSCSI storage array can be a challenge, even for an experienced IT administrator. Reducing the job to child's play is Drobo, which recently expanded its line of compact, high-density SAN devices for small business with the Drobo B800i iSCSI Storage SAN for Business, an eight-bay iSCSI SAN that might just be the easiest RAID array that the CRN Test Center has ever set up.

While it might not be the cheapest SAN appliance at $3,999 list unpopulated, the Drobo B800i more than makes up for its price tag by eliminating completely the need for an experienced administrator. Thanks to its so-called BeyondRAID embedded system, the administrator's qualifications are reduced to the ability to recognize blue, green, yellow and red LEDs.

Gone are the decisions of which RAID level to select, how many drives to put in and of what size, spin speed and SATA version they need to be. Out of the box, simply insert one or more 3.5-inch SATA drives (free of rails or carriers) of any capacity up to 3TB and boot the Drobo. Its clever firmware does the rest, figuring out the best way to protect the data using with the drives it was given.

A line of 10 blue LEDs indicate capacity in use; a new one lights up whenever another 10 percent of the array is occupied. Need more storage space? Just pop another drive into an available slot and Drobo absorbs its capacity and expands available space. No available slots? No problem. Just rip out your smallest drive and pop in a larger one. Data is automatically redistributed. While it's reconfiguring itself, LEDs on the effected drives alternate between green and yellow to warn against removing them.

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The company says that such actions will have to effect on users. To test this claim, we ran the IOmeter benchmark utility and monitored I/O traffic and throughput while adding a drive to the array. The 1TB drive we added blended with the six existing 2TB drives in about five seconds, after which performance dipped about 10 percent, from 930 IOPS to 840 IOPS.

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Drobo's proprietary RAID software protects data after a drive fails (as indicated by a red LED); the ailing drive can simply be yanked and replaced, and our tests bore out this claim. If two drives fail or are removed at once, all hell breaks loose unless dual disk redundancy is selected during setup (disabled by default). Drobo does warn about it in its documentation and demonstration videos, and the software recovered from this scenario anyway, even though we left the default setting for tests.

Drobo's administrative tool is called Drobo Dashboard, and is by far the best iSCSI software we've seen as far as ease of setup. Included for Mac OS X (Intel only) and Windows, this tool is only really needed for initially configuring network settings, creating and modifying volumes and for taking basic snapshots. Drive formatting choices include NTFS, multi-host and none; NTFS, HFS+ and FAT32 file systems are supported (EXT3 is in beta). Capacity is selected with a slider in 2TB increments, which explanations of the impact of each choice (for example, selecting 16TB might cause Windows to take a long time to start up). Thin provisioning is hard wired, and permits volumes to be created in excess of physical capacity.

The only remaining step before making the volume available to the network was to launch a iSCSI Initiator, which on our test laptop saw the drive on the network and mounted the volume for storage and performance testing. From a dual-core Dell Latitude E5510 running 64-bit Windows 7 Professional, maximum transaction performance with 32K byte reads over one of its two Gbit Ethernet channels was 1014 IOPS, while throughput topped out at 31.7 MB/s at the default frame size of 1500 bytes.

In terms of ease of use, iSCSI SAN setup doesn't get much simpler than with the Drobo B800i. And its LED-based monitoring and automatic administration make the device an ideal solution for resellers looking for a set-and-forget storage appliance for servers and individuals that can be checked from afar and maintained minimally on site as needed with no specialized expertise. The CRN Test Center recommends Drobo B800i.