Robot that redefines space

However much hard drive storage you have, it never seems enough. For anyone who has increasing numbers of digital media files or is running an expanding business, for example, it is just a matter of time before the storage capacity runs out or the hard drive crashes.

The immediate solution is to add capacity, typically by installing an extra external hard drive, which of course needs backing up with another. My desk eventually disappears under drive enclosures, power supplies and cables.

As we enter the era of 1 terabyte (1,000 gigabyte) drives, consumers and non-technical professionals such as photographers face a challenge that is growing too fast to cope with. Traditionally, corporate information technology departments have addressed the problem by installing Raid systems (redundant array of inexpensive drives). But these are complex and unsuitable for most desktops.

So I was intrigued when a Californian start-up called Data Robotics (www.drobo.com) entered the fray with new technology and a product called the Drobo, which was launched this week.

Its developers claim that the device, which looks like a shiny black shoebox, makes expanding storage simple and provides sophisticated automated data protection and unrivalled expansion flexibility without the need for complex configuration or management.

A clever tool on the Data Robotics website called the Drobolator allows potential buyers to select the right number of drives and capacity. I started with two drives, one an 80Gb, the other 160Gb, and later added 350Gb and 500Gb units. With the four drives (totalling 1.19Tb) installed, I had almost 550Gb of space for data, about 140Gb reserved for expansion and 330Gb to protect user data.

However many drives a Drobo finds in its bays, it treats them as a single large virtual drive, which makes it easy to find data on any of the physical drives. When you need to add capacity, you simply add another SATA (serial ATA) drive of any make, model or capacity. A Drobo allows mixing and matching of drives and no data migration or reconfiguration is required. It can use new capacity as soon as a drive is added. That means you need buy only the drives you need immediately, a bonus when drive prices are falling.

The Drobo signals its status using two banks of light-emitting diodes. One bank of four LEDs shows the status of each installed drive – four green lights means everything is fine. A second bank shows remaining capacity.

You simply add a disc drive (of any capacity) into the slot indicated by Drobo. If there is already a drive there, you replace it with a higher capacity drive. You do not even have to power down the device. Drobo supports “hot swapping” one drive with another without loss of data.

The ability to expand storage capacity almost indefinitely by adding bigger drives without having to buy a whole new system or spend hours reconfiguring data is impressive. But that is just the start.

Perhaps most important, a Drobo automatically configures itself for data protection. If a drive fails, the device automatically moves unprotected data to protected space on remaining disks. It also incorporates self-healing concepts. It senses when a drive becomes corrupted and pre-emptively moves data. And it can survive power outages without data loss.

I would have liked to be able to plug the Drobo directly into my home network rather than tie it to a PC. But you can attach a Drobo to an Apple Airport Extreme router or Linksys network.

Overall, I found Drobo well built, and easy to use and expand. I knew my data was fully protected without having to think about it.

For non-techies, this peace of mind probably justifies the price. Some day, all expandible desktop data storage devices may incorporate the Drobo’s advanced features and ease of use. For the moment, it lives up to its promise of delivering a consumer-friendly package of storage flexibility and data security without complexity.

Wizard stuff spells useful back-up

PC users looking for back-up software already have a wide range of choices, including excellent packages such as Uniblue Systems’ WinBackup 2 Professional (www.liutilities.com) and Norton Ghost 10 (www.symantec.com).

But now Symantec has launched a new version of its Norton Save & Restore software, Save & Restore 2.0, which combines all the full drive image functionality of Norton Ghost, but enables users to back up and restore individual files or file types. This $50 package isn’t for everyone, but consumers looking for easy to use back-up software that nevertheless includes most of the options most people need – including the ability to recover from system crashes and hardware failures – should consider Save & Restore. Other features include enabling users to make space- and time-saving incremental back-ups, back up data on the fly without restarting the system, and back-up to almost any media. Back-up files are encrypted for security.

I found the one-step set-up wizard, which automatically creates an initial back-up schedule based on a PC’s storage devices and system settings, particularly helpful.

Once set up, the software monitors and optimises back-up disk space and launches a back-up when particular events, such as new installations, are detected. Among the new features built into the latest version are support for Windows Vista, faster back-ups, enhanced back-up search and an easy set-up wizard.

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