My Frantic Search for A Drobo Alternative in 2024

by Mar 7, 2024Photography Blog

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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My Frantic Search for A Drobo Alternative in 2024

Until recently, I’d been a long-time Drobo user and enthusiast. Then, in 2022, Drobo’s parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy before liquidating in 2023. This marked the end of a wonderful photo storage solution for photographers and presented me with a problem.

I needed to find a Drobo alternative quickly.

What is a Drobo?

If you’re wondering what a Drobo is, it’s best described as a large disk drive.

5 bay Drobo drive. A Drobo alternative is required for my photo library.

Inside the Drobo black box are several bays where you can mount disk drives. The drives are regular internal hard drives that you would find inside a computer, and they just slide into the Drobo bays. This makes it extremely easy to add new disk drives or swap out old ones that need replacing.

But the ability to swap and add drives easily isn’t the only benefit of a Drobo. The computer sees its multiple disks as a single large hard drive. If we need more storage, we can add more disks or replace existing disks with larger ones.

For example, if I have a 5-bay Drobo and install 4 x 4TB disks, the computer will see this as one 12TB drive. This is less than the total capacity of the four disks because the largest disk in the group is used for data redundancy. This is how the Drobo protects you from data loss if one of the drives fails or is removed. If I then add another 4TB disk the Drobo storage increases to 16TB.

The Drobo also provides the benefits of a RAID system. If a disk in the Drobo fails, we can replace it without losing data, all while continuing to use the other disks. But unlike RAID storage, the individual disks in the Drobo don’t need to be identical. They don’t even need to have the same spin speed or even the same manufacturer.

So Why the Problem?

After Drobo’s parent company hit financial difficulties, it stopped releasing firmware and software updates. It was then only a matter of time before Apple released an OS update (they do a major release each year) that prevented the Drobo from working. When that happened, I wouldn’t be able to access my photo library stored on the Drobo.

Things came to a head for me in late 2023 when I decided to update my ageing Intel Mac to a Mac Studio. My old Mac desktop had begun to give me problems and was now old enough not to run the latest Mac OS. It had to be replaced.

After migrating to my new Mac Studio, I discovered it wouldn’t read my Drobo drives. It could see both of my Drobo units but couldn’t read their contents, which included my entire photo library.

I Saw This Day Coming

I was fortunate in that I had seen this coming and had taken steps to prepare.

Soon after I learned about Drobo’s problems, I bought a 12-Tb Seagate drive to use as a backup. I had then copied my entire photo library there so I could still access it, but I urgently needed to find a Drobo alternative.

Following some hurried research, I decided to buy a Synology DS423+ NAS drive.

The Synology DS423+

I decided on a Synology DS423+ because I had been told it was easy to set up, fast, and reliable.

The Synology DS423+ NAS drive is my Drobo alternative

This is a 4-bay unit to which I can install up to 4 disks. Unlike my Drobo units, it doesn’t have a USB connection to my computer. Instead, it’s what is called a NAS drive, which stands for Network Attached Storage. It attaches to your computer network and has its own onboard computer to manage data storage on the disks.

Despite being a NAS drive, you don’t need a network to use one of these. All you need to do is plug the NAS drive into one of the ports on the back of your router; these are the orange ports shown in the router image below. Your computer then plugs into one of the other ports, and the two can see each other.

Ports on the back of my router

To populate the NAS unit with storage, I purchased three 12TB disks. These are easy to install, so don’t pay the premium of a NAS that comes with the disks already installed.

The next step was to set everything up.

Setting Up My Synology DS423+

I now needed to decide which RAID version to use and then configure the NAS unit.

After spending several confusing hours reading about the benefits of different RAID configurations, I decided to ask ChatGPT about the options. That’s where I learned about the Synology Hybrid RAID option and discovered it was quite like my Drobo.

Using Synology Hybrid RAID, I could use different sized drives. This would make it easier and cheaper to swap out disks in the future. It also gave me more storage space than the RAID options. After formatting my three 12 TB drives, I was left with 21.8 TB of storage.

It was then time to configure my new NAS drive which is something I hadn’t really considered.

After some head-scratching, I found this great video on YouTube. This had me up and running extremely quickly. If you’re considering buying a Synology NAS, I recommend watching this first.

Disappointing Performance

When my NAS drive was correctly set up, I began copying the contents of my Photo Library from the 12TB Seagate drive. To do this, I used my backup software, Carbon Copy Cloner. It performs well and allows me to pause, stop and restart the copy process as necessary.

My initial guess was that it would take 3-4 days to duplicate my Photo Library. This quickly proved to be wildly inaccurate, and it eventually took me almost 16 days. The copy performance was terrible, and I couldn’t work out why.

Initially, I blamed the 12TB Seagate drive’s USB connection. Then, I thought it might be the USB to USB-C converter. Eventually, I discovered it was the NAS drive itself. This was only after I had finished copying my Photo Library there and repointing Lightroom to it. Everything ran at a snail’s pace. I then tried Photoshop and Affinity Photo, and they also struggled to save and read files.

To give an idea of the speed, a typical Photoshop file of around 1.5GB would take almost 5 minutes to save.

In the end, I gave up trying to have my photo library on the NAS. Instead, I pointed Lightroom to the copy on my Seagate 12TB drive and did my editing there. I then used a daily replication task in Carbon Copy Cloner to copy the Seagate USB drive to the NAS.

Performance Problem Fixed

After the disappointing start, I reasoned there must be something wrong with my Synology NAS drive, most likely a configuration issue. I spent a lot of time investigating possible problems, but nothing worked.

It was now looking like I needed to buy two Solid-State Drives to install on the NAS drive. These would then provide fast read and write access, acting as a buffer for the main unit. The only problem was that they were several hundred pounds each. I decided to do nothing until I was sure this would fix the problem.

Then suddenly I fixed the Synology NAS performance, but it was quite by chance.

After encountering problems with the Wi-Fi from the router in my office, I decided to upgrade it to a newer model. That’s when I discovered the old model didn’t have high-speed ports. These are the ports that allow my computer to talk to the NAS drive. Instead of the 1000Mbit speed they should have been, they were only a tenth of this.

It turned out my £40 router upgrade fixed my NAS performance problems.

Summary

I’ll end the story here, although I know I still need to learn about running a NAS. It has plenty of useful features to explore, but that wasn’t the point of this article. This article was intended to share my experience of trying to find a Drobo alternative for my photo library.

Now that I have my Synology DS423+ correctly configured and have fixed the performance issues, it makes a great Drobo alternative. But I don’t think it’s as easy to use and manage as a USB Drobo.

Would I recommend the Synology DS423+ as a Drobo replacement?

Yes, if you are happy dealing with technology and can make use of the multitude of NAS features. If not, I would look for a cheaper and simpler alternative. Perhaps even a couple of large external disk drives that mirror each other.

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