Get to Your Files from Anywhere — and Let Your Clients Access Their Projects, Too — with this Networked Storage System
Although I usually review sexier gear like cameras, speedy workstations, tripods, and even audio gear, Drobo approached me at NAB 2018 about looking at one of their network-attached storage (NAS) products. I bought my first NAS about five years ago as an experiment in getting my two main HP-workstation based editing systems (a 12-core Z800 and a 16-core Z820) and an older HP XW8600 that I use for digitizing analog media to share files back and forth. My level of IT experience lets me build NLEs (or regular PCs) on Windows, Mac, or Linux. I can get them on a wired or Wi-Fi network, but I’m not great at getting the computers to talk to each other. So I bought a really inexpensive Ditto (now out of business) two-bay model on sale for $30 that seemed like an OK starter unit. I added two 2 TB drives to it and set them up in a mirrored configuration for a whopping 2 TB of network storage. It worked, sort of. It was very slow, and eventually it just sat there — it was too slow, and unreliable. Right now it is pretty much a 4 TB paperweight on an AV cart between a BVW-75 Betacam SP deck and a DVD recorder.
While I was really curious about high-speed external RAID enclosures, I knew it was time to look at a serious NAS, so I chose the Drobo 5N2 NAS enclosure. What you get in the box is the enclosure, a power cable, two Ethernet cables, instructions, and a Drobo shopping bag (in case you want to take it some place or advertise Drobo while at the supermarket.) While some NAS systems are turnkey, Drobo is not — you must add your own drives and, if desired, an mSATA SSD drive for the cache. (The system doesn’t require cache to run, but the instructions promise it improves performance.) I went with a 480 GB Kingston Technology mSATA drive. While the instructions said sizes of only 120 GB have been tested, the 480 GB seems to work great in my system. The main storage drives can be any size and make as long as they are SATA, preferably SATA-3, and up to 12 TB each. While I could have stuck five random drives in the Drobo, to keep things simple I went with five 6 TB Seagate Ironwolf NAS-optimized drives. These drives are made for constant 24/7 uptime. At this writing, they are up 76 days without issue.
Once I got all the third-party drives from Seagate and Kingston Technology, it was pretty easy to assemble. I recommend installing the cache first, as you need to flip it on its top, open a small door and put it in its socket. Pretty simple! Next put it right side up and remove the front of the unit, which is held on by magnets. This exposes the drive bays. You simply slide each drive into a bay until it clicks. That’s it. No screws, no wires. Just line it up and push it in. For best performance, while it will work with a single Ethernet cable, Drobo recommends connecting it to the router with two cables, one in each port to double the speed of transfers.
Before you are able to use the 5N2, you must install the Drobo app on at least one computer on the network. Once the app is installed and running, it will find the Drobo on the network. This generally isn’t instantaneous — in fact, it may take a while, long enough to have you start checking cables or looking up the FAQs on the Drobo web site before you look up, sometimes 30 minutes (or longer) later, and see that the app has magically found your Drobo. From the app you can set up the RAID configuration, check the health of the unit, or any other attached Drobo products, and format it. Formatting is the first thing you should do, and that also can take a while. Once formatted, you will find two folders, labeled “Drobo apps” and “Public.” The first has different optional Drobo Apps you can install. In the “Public” folder, you can make subfolders to store different projects. I made a folder for each different computer, then for each project on each computer. Next you register your Drobo on their website, where you set up a password and secure a unique URL (web address) for your Drobo, so that if you have it on a web-connected network, you can access it remotely over the web from anywhere in the world.
Before I put the Drobo on the internet, I had it on my internal “editnet” that connects my aforementioned HP editing workstations. I have a five-port Gigabyte Ethernet switch where I connected the Drobo with two Ethernet cables, as suggested, and the workstations each with one, as that was all there was room for. The 5N2 was visible in the Computer Explorer app. I immediately started backing up projects, easily moving multiple gigabytes a minute. In 2 or 3 hours I had about 5 TB backed up. While the Drobo is pretty fast, I wouldn’t edit 4K or even most HD from it over the network. It may play clips fine, but it really isn’t meant for that. You could probably edit using proxies, but your best bet is keeping your project media local and just using the Drobo for backup.
Next I moved the 5N2 onto my separate, internet-connected computer network. The router is both Ethernet and WiFi capable. It connects an HP Z2 all-in-one workstation, mostly used for office and family work and an old HP xw8200 running a lite version of Linux on Ethernet, and my mobile HP Z-Book workstations and a bunch of other mobile devices over Wi-Fi. At first I couldn’t get the Z2 to see the Drobo in the “Computer Explorer,” even though I could see it in the Drobo App, so I had a friend who actually does IT for a living stop in and take a look. He couldn’t figure it out, so he said he’d do some research on it and give me a call. Being energy efficient, I shut down the Z2 for the night. The next day my friend called me with an idea to try, so I booted the Z2 — and there’s the Drobo! I didn’t have to do anything. I guess good things come to those who wait? If your Drobo doesn’t show up, try rebooting the computer. If the Drobo was turned off, give it five minutes to boot and do its internal diagnostics.
The toughest challenge came a couple of weeks later, when I flew to Israel for a family vacation. If you read my review of Canon’s XF405 4K camcorder, you know that I took a lot of photos and video, totaling 20–30 GB. From Israel I was able to back up about 400 MB of my photos and two video clips directly to the Drobo sitting in my family room in California. I could possibly have done more, but while Israel in general is a high-tech, Wi-Fi wonderland, my inlaws’ home is not. I was told it was because of the seven visitors using the WiFi at once, but I wasn’t convinced. Sometimes I’d be uploading at 1 a.m. and I’d still have a bad connection. If I were in an office or hotel, chances are I would have had a much better connection.
One super-useful 5N2 feature is the ability to create password-protected folders that could be accessed by clients over the internet. That is something I can use weekly, if not daily. I use sites like WeTransfer.com to send large files over the web, but it takes forever to upload files. Having the ability to transfer the files quickly from one of my office computers to the Drobo, then have the client in New York download it over the web, is awesome! You can set up password-protected folders using the Drobo Access app.
In conclusion, I had the Drobo 5N2 running for nearly three months straight with no issues whatsoever. Once it was recognized on my network, it seemed to work fine — and stayed working. While it was easy to put together, and a little tricky getting some of the other computers to see it, eventually they all did. The ability to give clients internet access to their finished product via a password-protected folder on the Drobo makes it even better. Not having to deal with uploading to Dropbox, WeTransfer.com or other large file-exchange sites will speed my review and delivery process. While I haven’t tried out any other professional NAS systems, the Drobo 5N2 seems like a good, reliable starting point.