Gigabytes in paradise

Data, welcome to Nirvana: a small black box with lights called Drobo, the “data robot.” One blurb called it “the iPod of mass storage.”

I’ve been waiting a decade for this.

The Drobo ( is the first device that can take multiple hard drives — of unequal size, by any manufacturer — and unify them into one giant walk-in closet for your digital stuff. If any one drive fails, you just pop in a new one. If you run out of space, you buy bigger drives and swap them in. All the while, the Drobo stays on, and you don’t lose access to your files for even a second.

You may have heard of RAID — Drobo takes RAID out to the shed and beats it with a belt.

For four years, I’ve made almost every one of my clients buy an external hard drive to sit on their desk, automatically backing up their stuff. Each time, I’ve said, “When that drive fills up, we’ll get you a new, bigger one and you can stash the first one in a closet.” It may seem wasteful, but as I discussed in my last column `July 5`, very few computer users can afford to lose what’s on their hard drives.

I want to mention here that if you do suffer a hard-drive failure, services exist that can typically recover your data. Drive Savers of California has one of the best reputations (and employs a crisis-intervention counselor). Their work can run between $1,000 and $3,000, but there are more-affordable and locally based agencies, such as Advanced Data Recovery ( Also, the $89 software SpinRite, by Steve Gibson at, reportedly does the best job outside of a clean room of recovering data.

Back to good vibrations: Mass storage used to be unnecessary for non-geeks. Now any new computer can make anyone a musician or filmmaker with artwork that takes lots of space to produce.

On the other end, internet-based consumers have put billions of dollars into pure 0s and 1s, assets that exist nowhere but hard drives. In January, the iTunes Store sold its two-billionth song, and it offers more than 500 movies and whole seasons of many TV shows. Amazon recently announced its own forays into digital downloads of music and video. Sales of physical albums continue to drop, while downloadable purchases claim bigger market share every day.

Then there are the terabytes of free (or free-if-you-know-where-to-look) files being downloaded every day. (Between us, did you know you could have your computer automagically grab new episodes of your favorite TV shows, sans commercials, without any subscription? Whatever you do, don’t visit, and don’t download, for example, Democracy Player, which also has wonderful legitimate uses.)

So, the Drobo lets you stash that multimedia audio-visual glut in an expandable, protected space. Now that the first 1Tb (terabyte) internal hard drives have hit the market, the Drobo can combine four of those puppies for a total of 2.7Tb redundant storage. (Redundancy in computerdom, as opposed to, say, a philosophy major, is a boon.)

I can’t report that this magnificence comes cheap. The Drobo is $500 for the enclosure alone. But gigabytes have become very cheap, indeed; a year ago I advised people to be happy getting $1/gigabyte. Today, I paid $100 for a 500Gb drive. Three of those will put 930Gb in my Drobo. That, my friends, is 2,000 movies or 300,000 songs, whichever comes first. By the time I fill that (and I will), drives will be more capacious and markedly cheaper.

The Drobo currently only connects over a slightly slower USB 2.0. Many forum-posters have griped about this limitation, but it makes sense in the way the iPod makes sense: Keep it simple, and fewer things will screw up.

And … iPhone… Ooooh, you knew I was gonna sneak it in somewhere! 


Jonathan Marcus publishes online at


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