A few days ago, I went to Drobo's offices for a Q&A as well as some time with the new devices that Drobo promises are faster than ever. What I found surprised me...
Drobo released the Mini and 5D, both with Thunderbolt and spinning and solid state hard drive support, a while ago, but just yesterday also announced the 5N, an ethernet, networked version of the 5D. I was ecstatic to hear that Drobo was upgrading their drives with Thunderbolt (alongside USB 3.0). But my experience with my own 2nd generation Drobo over Firewire 800 had me skeptical about its true speed.
After visiting with them, however, I have a new optimism for the system. Drobo reworked everything in the Drobo (for the 5D), the Drobo FS (for the 5N), and for the all-new Drobo Mini from the ground up -- software and hardware. The drives are speedy and fast enough to work with 4k video. An optional mSata drive on the bottom (Drobo recommends a 60GB drive) caches library files so things like thumbnails and previews in Lightroom will load essentially as quickly as they do on your internal solid state drives, regardless of whether or not you have standard 7200RPM drives or faster SSDs installed in your drive bays.
The 5D and 5N feature 5 bays for 3.5" drives, but can accept virtually any size or type via an adapter. The Mini holds 4 2.5" drives. In both cases, be sure to get non-Sandforce-based SSDs if you go that route, as Drobo doesn't support them because of issues with deleting data efficiently. This still leaves you with plenty of top-end options, however, such as those from Intel, Crucial, and Samsung.
Both drives feature metal-infused carbon fiber shells, which makes me feel comfortable about portability. A built-in battery lets the drives move cached data normally on memory during data transfers to be moved to the internal drives in the event of a power loss -- so everything is kept safe, (change to Orbitz girl accent) no matter what.
The networked 5N isn't nearly as fast as the other two cousins, but if an ethernet, network-connected drive works best in your workflow (recommended for small businesses/offices), then this is the way to go. Alternatively, you can always connect a 5D to your router that supports external drives through a USB connection, though you'll undoubtedly lose some speed through that connection, too.
My single gripe with the Drobo system was always its speed -- or lack thereof. But I'm excited for a new system that I can use for both backup and live work. And best of all, everything will be backed up with Drobo's BeyondRAID technology.
If you don't know what that is, it's the best kind of RAID there is. You get everything backed up, where you can set one- or two-drive redundancy. And you only lose the data of your largest drive (if you choose one-drive redundancy, which is plenty for me). That means that you don't have to "lose" half of your data storage to backing up. Assuming you the same-sized drives in there, you only lose 20% of your overall storage space (in a 5-drive system). That's brilliant! Dead drive? Slide it out (it's the one with the red light next to it) and slide a new one of the same size or larger back in. Want to increase the size of your system? Change your drives out one by one while waiting for the new data to copy in between switches. Simple! No IT knowledge necessary.
These drives bays will cost you, sure. The 5D is $830, the 5N is $600, and the Drobo Mini comes in at $610, each without any drives. But for that price, you save data storage with BeyondRAID and you get one of the most advanced and easy-to-use storage systems in the world.
Are these the fastest Thunderbolt-enabled RAID solutions? No. But they're plenty fast for anything you'll need. They're beautiful, simple, and most importantly, secure. Have you tried them out yet? Let us know what you think.