SMOKINCHOICES (and other musings)

October 28, 2012

Backin’ up those files?


Lots of files but no room for backup? Time for a RAID

David Pogue writes for The New York Times.


Hold up your right hand, look this page straight in the eye, and answer truthfully: At this moment, is your computer completely backed up?

Did you answer “yes”? Congratulations, you statistical freak. Skip to the next article.   If you’re like the huge majority, however, your backup is out of date or nonexistent.   And that situation is getting more dire every day. The world wants us to snap more pictures, download more movies, play more music, shoot more video. Well, great. But if something’s worth snapping, downloading, playing or shooting, then it’s also worth backing up.

So you buy an external hard drive. And another. And another. After a while, your desk looks like mine, festooned with a hideous archipelago of mismatched drives, each with a cable and a power cord.

And by the way, those drives are not, themselves, backed up. Most contain the original files I’ve offloaded from the computer for long-term storage. If one of those drives dies, I’m out of luck.

Boy, does Drobo have a suggestion for people like me.

See, corporations don’t go buying external drives from Best Buy. They use RAID arrays, or Redundant Array of Independent Disks. That’s a passel of drives congregated inside a single metal box; clever software makes them look to a computer like one big drive. Or three smaller ones, or 50 little ones — however the highly paid system administrator decides to chop them up.

  • As a bonus, thanks to a fancy encoding scheme, the files on a RAID system can be recovered even if one of the participating hard drives goes to the great junk drawer in the sky. (That’s why it’s R for “redundant.”)
  • For several years, a company that calls itself Drobo (short for “disk robot”) has been pursuing a single dream: Make RAID arrays for noncorporate people — high-end types, small businesses and creative professionals with little technical expertise and no technical staff.

And now it is offering two new models: the Drobo 5D ($850 list) and the Drobo Mini ($650).

A Drobo is just a sleek, glossy, black empty shell. You have to buy internal hard drives to insert like cartridges. Online, for example, you can snag a couple of 2-terabyte drives for $110 each. That ought to hold a few baby pictures.

  • Once the drives arrive, you start to understand the nosebleed Drobo price tag — because there’s no setup or configuration. You don’t even have to attach the drives to rails or caddies or fiddle with screws, as you do with professional RAID systems; you just shove them in like frozen waffles going into a vertical toaster. The Drobo automatically assimilates them into your increasingly large virtual drive.

Also unlike most RAID systems, the drives you buy can be different brands, speeds and capacities; Drobo is an equal-opportunity enclosure.

The Drobo 5D has slots for five drives — standard 3.5-inch, SATA internal drives, which these days come in capacities up to 4 terabytes each. The new Mini, the first Drobo that could be called portable (7-by-7-by-2 inches, suitable for peripatetic video editors and photographers), has four slots. They accept 2.5-inch laptop drives, which, these days, offer a maximum of 1 terabyte each (about $80).

  • Here’s the big payoff: As your life fills with files, you can fill your empty slots with more drives. Once you’ve filled them all, you can eject one of your smaller drives and replace it with a more capacious one. None of that requires copying files, reformatting a drive or managing anything. The Drobo system automatically recognizes new drives and makes them, too, part of the suddenly larger virtual hard drive. This breezy, suit-yourself flexibility is unheard-of in traditional RAID systems.
  • Here’s the other payoff:  Drives die. When that happens, you don’t lose any data. In its RAID-y way, the Drobo auto-reconstructs everything that was on the corpse drive. You keep using all your files as if nothing had happened, even as the Drobo starts redistributing your files so that they’re protected against another drive failure, which can take hours or days.

Now, clearly, a Drobo is absurd overkill for many people. If everything in your world fits on your computer’s built-in hard drive, one cheap external drive might be all the backup you need.

  • But if you traffic in drive-busting files such as photos, music and videos, or if losing your files would kill your small business, a Drobo might make good future-proofing sense.

In either case, that’s enough reading. Go home and come up with a backup system that you’ll actually keep current.

(Impressive!   Just one thought I have to add here.  Sometimes I can tell something is magnificent, I think it comes from my gut.  And this is one of those times.   This whole thing squeaks like genius – but, in fact, it is so far beyond me, I’m incapable of even forming a question about it.   So if anyone has a question about any of this. . . .write to David  over at the New York Times.       Jan)


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