Drobo FS Lion Time Machine Fix

Many Drobo FS owners out there who upgraded to Lion were unpleasantly surprised by the fact that their Drobo no longer behaved like they used to. After months, drobo released new firmware, but it didn’t improve things all that much. With the new firmware, the Drobo FS:

  • is slow or entirely unresponsive, Time Machine backups don’t finish at all or take days
  • doesn’t show up in the Finder of Lion Macbook owners connecting through wifi
  • has a transfer speed of 20MB/s, even when connecting through GB Ethernet, regardless of OSX version (tested with Snow Leopard, Lion)

If you have one or more of the problems listed above, you will be pleased to hear that there is a “fix”, although it may not be what you were hoping for.

The Good
Late 2010 I discovered drobo. Until then, I had always managed my storage space myself, transferring data to bigger disks as time went on. The idea of a device which would automatically do that by just plugging in a new drive sounded like a real time saver. That, and the fact that it could handle a disk failure without data loss, and behave like network Time Machine share made me buy a Drobo FS.

On December 19th 2010, I spent a whopping €615,- on a diskless Drobo, and threw another €300,- worth of 1TB disks in there, along with some old disks I had lying around.

I moved all backups to the Drobo. Life would be good. Or so I thought.

The Bad
The Drobo does what is called “Thin Provisioning”. This means that it will tell your computer that it is 16TB in size, although physically it isn’t. This means that when you run out of physical storage space, you replace one of the drives with a bigger one and your computer wouldn’t even notice.

When I created a Time Machine share on the drobo, I discovered that this was not entirely true. When you create a Time Machine share on the drobo, you must choose a size in order to keep Time Machine from filling up your drobo. But unlike other shares on the drobo, you can’t change the size of the Time Machine share when you decide you need more room.

I got over it, chose large enough Time Machine shares for all my machines, and everything worked fine for a couple of months. Performance wasn’t great, particularly mounting the sparse bundles took quite some time and a lot of disk access on the drobo, but hey. It’s seamless automated backup to a redundant disk array so it was acceptable.

Skip forward to July 20th, 2011. The release date of OSX 10.7, Lion. Because I wanted to make sure everything still worked in Lion, I waited until September 2011 before upgrading my Macbook. My other machines are too old and are still running Leopard (OSX 10.5) or Snow Leopard (OSX 10.6).

One of the reasons I had to wait until September was drobo. They didn’t have their software ready for Lion, and drobo actually tried to blame Apple for it. Yes you read that right. The OSX Lion developer preview had been out since October 20, 2010 but somehow drobo didn’t seem to have bothered to check compatibility all that time, and as a result effectively bricked all drobo’s for Lion users.

The Ugly
After the storm had passed, and Drobo released a firmware upgrade, I switched to Lion on my Macbook after installing the new firmware on the Drobo FS. The Lion upgrade went very smooth and I happily played with Lion’s new features. After a few hours, I noticed that the Drobo stopped working. No backups. Yikes!

The drobo wasn’t visibile when connecting over wifi and at first Lion was blamed for this problem. But my Mac Mini running Snow Leopard also started complaining about not being able to backup. I filed my first drobo support call at 09/18/2011 04:46 AM with the title “New Drobo FS firmware doesn’t work with Snow Leopard TimeMachine”.

It was downhill from there. Drobo support had me throw away Time Machine shares (losing data), reset the whole drobo (losing ALL data on the drobo), install bleeding edge firmware which was not even available through the normal drobo dashboard, advised me to both up- AND downgrade the drobo and the dashboard, repeatedly closed my support calls without actually solving them, refused to answer to replies not coming from the first email address I used, had me send numerous diagnostic files to them, and told me “they were working on a new firmware” but never when it was scheduled for release.

In less than 4 months, I exchanged more than 80 mails with Drobo Support, and the drobo had lost all my data 4 times. It had become more unreliable than any disk I had ever owned before. I was lucky to run backups-of-backups. The drobo may be able to handle drive failures, but the firmware developers and drobo support people are a lot less worried about your data.

The Fix
During these months, I struggled to keep my backups running. On December 13th 2011, I finally bit the bullet and fixed my drobo backup problems. If you want to fix your drobo Time Machine backup problems for once and for all, do the following:

  1. Connect to your drobo with an admin account, and using the Finder, copy all sparse bundles from all Time Machine shares to a location other than the drobo. Do the same for all other data you might have on there.
  2. Go the the Apple store and buy a Time Capsule (as a bonus, this also upgraded my wifi speed a great deal)
  3. If you have just one machine you want to backup, plug it in and open Time Machine preferences on your Mac, and choose the Time Capsule as backup location. If you don’t want to transfer your old backups, you’re done.
  4. For more technically inclined people, you can create encrypted and limited size sparse bundles for each of your machines on the TIme Capsule. Read this article by Michael “Nozbe” Sliwinski on how to do that. It works beautifully.
  5. If you want to transfer the data in your old Time Machine sparse bundle from your drobo, you can use this tip to do that, but frankly I haven’t tried that, I just created new, clean, backups.
  6. Now go and sell your drobo to somebody who doesn’t care about his data that much, or just wants a NAS for his Windows machine.

The Time Capsule has run beautifully out of the box, doesn’t have a butt-ugly dashboard like the drobo’s, and is actually faster over wifi than the drobo is over GB ethernet. Go figure.

I really hope that some day, somebody will create a drobo-like product which actually works.

P.S. If you like a challenge, you can actually already build a drobo-like fileshare with much higher performance at a lower cost by buying an HP proliant server, some disks, installing OpenIndiana on it and run a ZFS array. A friend of mine has replaced his troublesome drobo with this setup and can reliably copy files to it at 120MB/s over GB ethernet, and swap out drives while he’s doing that. Drobo isn’t even close.

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10 Responses to Drobo FS Lion Time Machine Fix

  1. Trevor Allen says:

    I had the same issues …found the firmware updates…and still had issues of very long backup times, dashboard not finding my share and dropped connections. THEN I found the root of the problem and now everything works smooth. The problem, for me, was the security settings with the firewall had changed when upgrading to Lion. This fixed it!

    1. Go to “System Preferences” and open “Security & Privacy”

    2. Click on the lock symbol in lower-left and prepare to login

    3. Click on “Firewall”, then “Advanced” (lower-right)

    4. Highlight each Drobo application (e.g. DDserviced, DDservice6d4) and choose “allow incoming connections”

    5. Once complete, click “OK”, then the lock symbol

    6. Close, then restart the Drobo Dashboard”

    I hope it works for you and your readers.

    Happy New Year!

    Trev

  2. Guus says:

    Nice write-up Rolf. 80 e-mails with support, you are a patient man.

    That’s a company I will not buy products from, that’s for sure.

  3. rolfje says:

    Drobo called. They want their drobo back. No kidding: Although I bought it at a Dutch web store, drobo actually called me and offered to refund me. I’ve accepted their offer.

    It is very nice of drobo to do this, as it’s outside the warranty period and I didn’t buy it directly from them. I just hope that they will fix the real problems with the FS so they don’t have to do this too often.

  4. Dan says:

    Wow, I’m having the same problems now with my New Drobo FS… 4 emails to support so far, the last response I got was from Thomas, who said “… I’ll come back to you on that…” and then disappeared… I have a new Drobo, latest os x and Drobo software, but Time Machine will simply lock up my mac… Drobo, a great idea, but poorly implemented…. wonder if they will buy mine back??

    • rolfje says:

      Well the story isn’t over. I got forwarded to someone at finance, who took a look at my receipt and is now trying to send me to the store I originally bought the drobo. Yes I know I have some rights as a customer, but now they want to bother that store with the mess they made themselves. The talk with Valorie was promising, Clayton is thinking about the money and puts me to work for it.

      I’m still tempted to just sell it, even if I loose more money on it, because Drobo is such a pain to work with as a company. I’ll keep you posted. 95 emails and counting. Oh and yes, Sonya wants me to take the customer survey. Again. I think this is the second or third time.

  5. Rolf says:

    Over a 100 mails to drobo now. It is probably the worst comercial company I have ever dealt with, or at least it feels like that.

    It is now February, almost 6 months after my first problems and I am still looking at the Drobo FS sitting in the corner, turned off, collecting dust, waiting for it’s final journey.

  6. Steve P says:

    Rolf,

    You mentioned your fried building out a “HP proliant server, some disks, installing OpenIndiana on it and run a ZFS array. ”

    It’d be fantastic if you could talk him/her into documenting a little more what exactly they did. I’d like to try this someday… :)

    Steve

  7. michael kors says:

    I like the valuable info you provide in your articles.
    I’ll bookmark your blog and check again here frequently. I’m
    quite certain I’ll learn many new stuff right here! Best of luck for the next!

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