Data Robotics wants to be the Apple of the SOHO storage world

When Data Robotics launched its first Drobo storage device three years ago, the company made a splash in the normally staid and stodgy storage market.

Data Robotics’ product was aimed at the small office or home office [SOHO] user with a pitch that its networked storage was idiot-proof and yet sophisticated in its automation.

The message apparently resonated with one particular group of users: Apple Macintosh owners, according to the Data Robotics CEO Tom Buiocchi. “The Apple customer seems to have a strong affinity to us,” he said. “You wouldn’t imagine that. They’re only 4 percent or 5 percent of the PC market, but they’re 65 percent% of our attach rate on our [professional/consumer] products. The Apple customer gets the Drobo. It’s like a cult.”

As for its small business clients, 80 percent use the Internet SCSI protocol to attach their servers and computers to Drobo arrays.

Data Robotics products include the DroboElite, which consolidates storage across multiple servers.

This week, Buiocchi talked in an interview about the future of Data Robotics, which has shipped 150,000 storage devices since in 2007 and is growing in revenue by 100 percent annually. Its network-attached devices start at around $400 for entry-level home units and run up to about $7,000 for top-line small-business storage area networks (SAN).

Buiocchi has served as Data Robotics CEO since December. The former chief of worldwide marketing for storage switch maker Brocade, he replaced the company’s co-founder, Geoff Barrall. In addition to his understanding of the storage marketing from 20 years in the field, Buiocchi also knew how to take a company public—something he hopes to do with Data Robots within five years.

What makes Data Robotics different in the storage market is that its Drobo arrays are aimed directly at the underserved SOHO sector. While other players—Seagate, Western Digital, Iomega, Buffalo, NetGear, LaCie and even Hewlett-Packard— have products in that market, none are so singularly focused as Data Robotics, according to Liz Connor, an analyst with market research firm IDC.

“Everybody’s got a token product [in the SOHO space], but Data Robotics is the only vendor saying, ‘This is the only space we play in. We don’t do anything else. We’re putting all our effort into making a very easy-to-use product, which is kind of what Apple did with the computer,’” Connor said. “That ease of use is really what’s selling.”

Buiocchi sees a SOHO market that represents up to $8 billion in annual revenue from sales of home storage networks and storage systems for small to medium-sized businesses.

Data Robotics, founded in 2005, focuses on companies with 10 or fewer employees and home users who want to network multiple computers and devices. Its arrays use a virtualization algorithm that make multiple hard drives appear as a single pool of storage, offering the data redundancy of RAID without the complexity.

“In 1984, Apple invented the first Mac. In 1984, the Phds at Berkley invented RAID,” Buiocchi says. “Look at what the Mac has become since 1984; It’s the iPad now. They’ve done amazing things. Now look at enterprise storage; It’s still RAID. It’s hard to use and complex. Nobody’s brought ease of use to storage. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Thin provisioning software runs in the background on Drobo systems, allocating only as much storage as is needed by an application. Once the capacity of the array reaches a pre-set threshold, it warns its user with a yellow or red LED light indicating that more storage capacity should be added. That’s done by either filling an empty drive tray or by pulling a drive out and replacing it with one that has more capacity.

Currently, Drobo boxes have up to five drive trays, allowing up to 10TB of capacity through the use of 2TB SATA drives.

The Drobo is a self-monitoring device that uses “DataAware” software to track where data is written on drives for retrieval and capacity reclamation purposes. If data is deleted, the data blocks are automatically returned to the pool of storage. Drobo’s BeyondRAID algorithm automatically redistributes data if a hard drive fails. A user can insert any SATA hard drive, regardless of the capacity or manufacturer, into a Drobo and it automatically is discovered and becomes one pool of capacity.

“I think people thought when it first came out that the Drobo was an interesting product. It looks kind of cool. It looks futuristic. It’s simple. You can start with two drives or go up to five and have 10TB of capacity. It doesn’t take up that much shelf space. It’s a neat product,” Connor says. “You can access both Macs or PCs, and being a Mac person that’s wonderful. I have competitive products that are still in the box because they’re PC only.”

Over the past year, the company has gone from two products to five, ranging from entry-level direct-attached storage for home users to entry-level iSCSI SAN for small businesses. Other products are due to be announced soon.

For example, Drobo plans to launch the beta version of a private cloud storage application, called Oxygen Cloud, that would allow home users to remotely connect to their Drobo FS NAS array to share data with mobile devices or home wireless devices like game consoles or an Apple TV That way, files, games, music and movies can be streamed directly from the NAS array to remote devices.

Although Data Robotics has moved upstream over the past year—it added an iSCSI SAN and a NAS array for workstations—Buiocchi said the company knows what’s imnportant. “We’re not going to go head to head with EMC, NetApp, and those guys. They focus on the enterprise, but there’s no real large and compelling company in the SMB space that has reinvented storage like Apple has reinvented PCs,” Buiocchi said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

[Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld.]

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