With the Windows Home Server community still confused about Microsoft’s decision to remove Drive Extender from the next version of the platform, debate continues both here and around the web on migration strategies. Does Vail have the features to make the leap worthwhile next year? How will the lack of Drive Extender impact ease of use in storage management and shared folder protection?

Whilst we wait for Microsoft to share their plans for the DE-less Vail and answer these questions, I caught up with Data Robotics Inc.’s CEO Tom Buiocchi and Senior Vice President of Marketing, Mario Blandini to discuss their views on the current storage category, reaction to Microsoft’s recent announcements and discuss how a combination of Windows Home Server and their Drobo storage technology could deliver a better solution for users.

Having developed a similar storage pooling and protection technology to Drive Extender in the form of BeyondRAID back in 2007, Data Robotics’ perspectives on the challenge to innovate in storage technology were fascinating. Following Microsoft’s announcements the company clearly sees an opportunity opening up next year to support existing WHS installations or migrate users to over to Drobo.The question is will Windows Home Server Vail users be happy to invest in a second device to achieve the same simplicity of storage management and expandability delivered today in Microsoft’s v1 platform? Or to cut to the chase, maybe Microsoft and Drobo need to chat about bringing their respective technologies together into one great value, great performing box?

Whether that scenario happens or not, continue reading to find out more about the company’s quest to deliver “the best storage experience ever”.

WGS: Some of our readers may have heard of the Drobo brand, but may not know the story behind how the company started and the development of Beyond RAID. Can you give us a brief overview of the history of the company?

Tom BuiocchiTB: So, the company was founded in 2005 with the sole mission of giving non-enterprise customers, so think small and medium businesses and small/home office folks, of giving them the best storage experience ever.

The background was that tens of millions of small organisations now rely on digital media or digital storage for some reason or another, whether it’s photographs at home or small business computing or backup needs, yet the RAID technology that was invented in 1984 had made very little progress in terms of ease of use.

As an analogy in 1984, Apple turned out the first Mac and they had the famous advertising campaign at that time. In the 26 years since 1984 they’ve done a fabulous job of driving ease of use into fairly sophisticated computers – so that every family member can now enjoy the benefits of a Mac or an iPhone, iPad or something along those lines without a lot of complexity. Amazingly in 1984, a number of PhD students at Cal Berkeley invented RAID in order to provide a mechanism to protect enterprise storage. At that time they never contemplated tens or hundreds of millions of people worldwide would need sophisticated digital media in their homes or in their small office, so they developed it to be fairly complex but very reliable for large enterprises who had large budgets and large staff.

Well in the 26 years since then, RAID has not been touch with the same ease of use magic that Apple did with their computing technology, so what we set out to do to storage was in many ways what Apple did for computers, which was to make it easier to use for the rest of us – the people who aren’t storage experts, who don’t know how to manage RAID, who don’t have enterprise storage staffs yet who rely on digital media for a number of emotional and business-like functions today. So that’s the general background to the company.

WGS: So when did you make a start on the development of BeyondRAID then?

TB: So the development of BeyondRAID started with the first venture funding back in 2005 – the product came out in mid-2007 and we’ve since expanded that one product into a product line of six products that span the direct attached, network attached and iSCSI SAN environments in different storage applications. So you can buy a Drobo for many different types of applications, same underlying technology.

We’ve sold close to 170,000 systems out there, so it’s a very proven technology, in very many different use cases around the world. It kind of got a start in the photography area, where digital photographers who are always running out of storage and had hundreds of CDs or USB drives needed a more robust protection scheme and expandable storage, so it turns out a Drobo fitted that need perfectly. Then we expanded into video editing and video storage and more recently, we’ve developed products for more horizontal business uses, like running virtual servers or doing backup, running Exchange and things of that nature which small and medium businesses need.

So we’ve gone from a very focused, media/creativity customer in use cases to more of a horizontal use case across SMBs.

WGS: What’s your mix between consumer and SMB users?

TB: It’s about 60:40 right now – 60 on the high-end consumer and 40 on the SMB, but I’ll tell you that the SMB is growing very, very fast for us. And we only sell through channel, we sell through channel partners worldwide.

BeyondRAID as a technology was developed because the fixed architecture and constraints of traditional RAID do not lend themselves to ease of use for the storage neophyte. So the team here developed BeyondRAID to remove some of those limitations of RAID and to automate many of those very complex storage tasks in the background so that folks like myself or others that aren’t storage experts could manage sophisticated storage without having to know what thin provisioning was, or how to migrate volumes or reclaim deleted space or any of those things. We do all that for the customer and we package our BeyondRAID technology into a product that is as easy to manage as a traffic light. You get green, yellow or red signals that correspond to 2 or 3 things that you can do and the product manages itself automatically for most of its storage needs.

MB: One of the things you’ll find about the technology that aligns well with users of Windows Home Server today is that they have, through Drive Extender, the ability to mix and match different drives and to provide protection for certain folders of data across drives. Drobo by itself is a storage device. We do have some applications – we can throw on our file system/file server product but generally that’s not packaged for the home user. The creative professional, the geek – I say that with affection as I’m a geek, can manage that stuff, but not really Grandma or Aunt Susie or any of those people – they would not have an easy time doing so.

So, we are a storage device and we allow many of the things that you can do with the software protection that comes with Windows Home Server, but we do it in a hardware fashion. So mixing and and matching of different sizes of drive, different firmware, different manufacturers, different speeds – you can do that in a Drobo and we don’t discriminate. We do our data protection in a RAID-like fashion, but we don’t allow the customer to choose that they’re doing RAID 1, or RAID 5, RAID 6 or RAID 10 – it’s just protected. We give them a traffic signal, it’s either green, it’s protected or it’s yellow, add a drive, so you can increase your protection.

WGS: So is BeyondRAID working as a software layer or via custom hardware?

MB: If you think of the Drobo as a black box, and it turns out our little boxes are black, we provide an interface to the home user – most commonly USB, eSATA or Firewire or iSCSI for the business stuff and as well as a file server interface we provide an SMB interface with a Gigabit Ethernet port out to a home network or business network. Those interfaces present our product as a storage device, and all of the BeyondRAID data protection happens inside the box.

If you’re asking me technically is it hardware or software, the answer is it’s software that is running on our controller in the product.

WGS: So it’s a custom controller that you’ve developed the software for.

MB: Yes, but not super-custom. A lot of people love it that we’re very affordable – one of the reasons that we’re growing like weeds in business is that we provide the same capabilities for a business iSCSI SAN user at a fraction of the cost. We do that with a general purpose processor in the box and our code that we have running on that.

So BeyondRAID technology is something that can be extended to a variety of different form factors and applications – it doesn’t have to be packaged in a black box like we have it today, it just turns out that Drobo is in the business of creating storage devices. Inside the box, we take care of everything else.