Computers, Home Servers, Network Attached Storage, News, Storage

Drobo and the Journey to Deliver “The Best Storage Experience Ever”

Tom Buiocchi

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.

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Terry Walsh is the founder of We Got Served. He started the community in February 2007 with a mission to help families, tech enthusiasts everywhere figure out the technology needed to run the modern home and small business. He's the author of a number of guides to Windows, Windows Server and OS X Server and runs his own successful publishing business. Born and raised in Liverpool, England, Terry has been awarded Microsoft's prestigious Most Valuable Professional Award each year since 2008 for his work on We Got Served.
  • Jon

    Nice write up .. but i am still a little peeved about getting Spam from them/WGS yesterday via WGS .. I signed up for news from writers etc.. not trying to sell me something

    • phaze

      Sorry Terry, I have to agree with Jon on this one.

      ….. getting WHS "authorized" Spam from Drobo, that puts down WHS… from a premier WHS blog…. NOT cool!

      We're all upset about the DE situation, but the correct path to follow is like you did writing to Balmer… unless you're think of jumping ship?

      • All of our comms come with unsubscribe links, which I heartily encourage you to use if you don't want to hear from us. That what it's there for.

        Jumping ship? Maybe it's not about one or the other in the future – could it be both? Or something else entirely? Until we see what Vail looks like without DE, I don't know. But it's something that needs to be considered. This is not like supporting one team versus another – whoever's up for protecting my data, helping me do the things I want to do with it in the best way possible? I'm happy to take a look.

        Microsoft continue to have my feedback on this, even if it's not published here. We're waiting to hear what they do with it.

        Either way, relevant reader offers is something that we'll continue to do – it's part of running a decent online community. If you don't want to receive them, then please do use that unsubscribe link. I wont be offended, honest 😉

        • phaze

          Hi Terry,

          I just wanted to better explain my comment:
          Believe me, I truly appreciate the emails and your passion for various home-use server solutions, and I myself am very open to other/new tech, be it Microsoft or otherwise. .

          It was simply the tone of this one Drobo email that seemed, to me anyway, to be just a tad harsh… maybe just bad timing considering the recent DE news?

          • Hey phaze, thanks for the clarification.

            Clearly they're a business and they see an opportunity. There's little wrong with that.

            But what I can see, and you'll read more on this in the next part of the interview, whilst intrinsically they may look like competing devices right now, use your imagination to break out the technology that drives Drobo from the device itself, and there are some interesting scenarios. I'm not saying anyone's thinking of that, or talking of that, bur read jam3ohio's questions below, and the next part of the interview (probably coming Monday).

        • boggy4062

          Terry,

          1. I think that emotions will run high as we try to digest what has happened .. really.

          2. I do belong to a group of people who used to be VERY excited about Drobo and WHS combination, but got sick and tired of DataRobotics folks propaganda. Yea, they did have an exciting product, which was WAY overpriced( but that one can overlook for the sake of innovation), but now they do nothing except trying to slide into potentially open slot.

          If DataRobotics folks claim to be experts in home / SMS data storage let them prove it. Why don't THEY come up with a TOTAL backup solution for both Windows and Apple and Unix worlds that at least mirror/match WHS capabilities

          3. Even though Leo Laporte and Paul Thurrott (Windows Weekly podcasts) think that WHS is dead, and no amount of pressure on MS is going to save it, I seem to be a little bit more optimistic.
          I believe that organized, very loud opposition by the end users CAN convince Microsoft folks to reconsider. I hope that they do.

  • jam3ohio (Jim)

    Terry–

    A few questions for Part 2:

    1). Is Drobo storage tech compatible with enterprise apps? In other words, would Drobo storage tech have the same issues that caused MS to yank DE?

    2). If 1). is yes, then could we see a Drobo storage tech device in the same box as a Vail/Aurora/Breckinridge box? I.E. no additional box to buy but Drobo controller in the same server box as these MS server products.

    3). Assuming that 2). is yes, is that solution something that SMB markets would value as a game changer?

    4). Assuming that 3). is yes, should Microsoft buy Drobo and integrate their storage tech into future business related server products (and of course leak it into Vail)?

    5). Is Drobo still VC owned?

    Jim

  • I really don't see that the Drobo FS product is a replacement for WHS..Yes, it does give you the storage pool concept of WHS, but that’s the end of it. It will not:
    ■back up only one copy of identical files from multiple PCs. Instead, you will end up with multiple copies of the same file, one for each PC.
    ■back up only those sectors that have changed in a file. Instead, even if only one bit has changed in the file, the whole file must be backed up. No intelligent storage here.
    ■be able to roll back to a complete backup snapshot taken earlier in time, without the need to take up additional storage space to actually hold all those multiple backups.
    ■be able to restore a PC with a working image with one click, if the PC has a failure.
    ■act as a DLNA media server out of the box. You have to add a third party application for this.
    Drobo may be good as resilient storage for consumers, but it seems to me that it doesn't go as far as WHS V1 does in offering a complete systems backup and restore in a packaging suitable for the home consumer.

    • moze

      This is a protypical response. Dude seriously how cheeeep is a tb drive now. Yeah it 99 at newegg. Next.

      • boggy4062

        It's is NOT just the cost of the hard disk. How about the energy… you know… saving ENVIRONMENT argument?. Drobo is only an external storage box with some duplication smarts That's all. No client REAL client backup solution like WHS is (fire and forget).

        I am getting tired of the discussion what Drobo is and what is not. I am more tired of companies dropping projects just because they cannot, don't want to do the right thing.

        Oh, and HP…. this bunch of idiots REALLY blow …. IMHO.

        • moze

          Wait. You can use it for timemachine. As for Eco. You can get low energy drives for it. I mean as understand it vail was a freaking server how is that Eco friendly.

          • boggy4062

            Sure you can, but you MUST attach it directly to the particular machine. So… in order to use Drobo you need another server to host it (except for the ISCSI version of course).
            Again, if it wasn't for the secretive Data Robotics folks who put the users support forum behind the firewall, people would know what real customers have to say about the product. I don't care much about marketing demos. ALL demos will make ANY product look "marvelous"
            You mean WHS not Vale right? Of course, WHS boxes are servers… that IS the entire point. I run my HP EX475 with 4 drives, supporting remote access, FTP,… you name it using only 60W (less when not doing backup).

            Anyway, just to make myself clear. Drobo DOES provide excellent solution for a single computer environment. WHS works for the entire network and some.

  • fingers

    Although the DROBO line looks interesting one place where I think it falls short for me is in expandability.

    With my current Windows home server once I filled the 4 internal drive bays I was able to expand my storage space by adding an inexpensive external drive enclosure which gave me an additional 4 drive bays. I still have 1 USB port, and 1 ESATA port that supports port multiplication available, so I could potentially add 2 more 4 drive enclosures to my storage pool.

    With the DROBO FS once you fill all of the drive bays the only way to expand it is to go out and purchase another DROBO FS. It would be good if they could incorporate USB, and ESATA ports (that support port multiplication) into their design to add additional storage. If they did that then, they would have a realistic competitor to WHS.

    • BenGeekn

      With all the Drobos, if you run out of bays, the next upgrade step is to replace one of the drives with a larger-capacity drive. I put in a feature request for a "cascade" type port though. 🙂

      IMHO the FS is *NOT* the way to go for WHS use – just get a direct-attach Drobo like the Gen 2 or S unit. The FS itself is a server, so it wouldn't be part of the WHS storage pool at all.

      I have 2 Drobo Gen 2 attached to my WHS v1 machine. Works well. A few things could be improved, but it works well.

  • JesterEE

    I have to agree with Terry on this one. If a device is gong to fill a gap in my data security, and they are offering a solution that is novel, and better than their competitors, why not given them a shot? I am not a Drobo fan after reading reports from users on the internet of many issues with the little black boxes. Granted, these might be a very small section of the user base, or even misplaced aggression from someone screwing it up on their own, but I didn't want to be added to that list after making a large investment. That's probably the reason I went with a WHS in 2008 over the Drobo. But it's almost 2011, and now things have changed somewhat. If Drobo is looking to fill the space that WHS is potentially leaving behind, and they can make a compelling argument for me to look their way again, I will be optimistic.

    But, with that said, their solution is still falling short for me as a home user.

    I agree with fingers comment above that expandability is a major issue. Sure 4 bays seems like a lot, but when you have 8TB (4x2TB) used for "stuff", and you need more … what are you going to do? Maybe at that time 4TB disks are available, albeit they will probably be expensive, but why am I going to invest a lot of money to gain half the investment (4x4TB (Free space) – 4x2TB (Used space to be moved over)=8TB gained)? Id rather do exactly as fingers said, attach a cheap eSATA enclosure and gain all of my investment in new hard drives while still being managed by the black magic in the black box.

    Also, lets not overlook the cost factor. Drobo's are expensive! The Drobo team can mitigate that statement with whatever they want in terms of use model or superior data integrity, but at the end of the day, I feel like I am overpaying for what I get. If that's the cost of business these days, I could come around, but there would have to be something to sweeten the deal for me other than the drives just work.

    The hybrid WHS and Drobo solution is honestly a pretty good one, but the main draw for the WHSv1 to me 'was' the integration at the appropriate price point.

    I want a server

    I want data integrity

    I want them to work togther

    I want a small unified form factor

    I want lower power consumption

    I want extensibility

    Maybe I'm not the average user … but I am a computer geek and I know EXACTLY what I want. Drobo fits one or two of my wants well, WHSv1 fits them all. If the Drobo team were to license their black magic into a simple to use Windows server for say, $500 plus the cost of hard drives (any hard drives, and as many as I wanted), I think I would be interested. But half a solution isn't a solution … it's the beginning of a new problem.

    • moze

      I think if you read more on Drobo and robotics you'll find they are much more on the apple side of licensing, thus you probably won't like anything about them. Youre better off drinking down some red bull and stepping into the basement and building your own. :p

      • It was dark when I woke. This is a ray of shunisne.

  • moze

    I was excited to hear about your interview. learned about you all through drobo tweets. One of my favorite tech companies. IT guys hate'm but I find their perspective totally needed

  • Ray

    Hi All,
    My take on it would be if they removed the BeyondRAID technology from the box and made an add-in for Vail for a cost that would handle as many hard drives that my WHS would hold, that would be a winer for me. Data Robotics, are you listening? This is a golden opportunity for Data Robotics if they handle it the right way.

    Hope for the best,
    Ray

    • boggy4062

      I couldn't with you more.

    • Damian

      Completely agree, decouple the BeyondRAID technology from the hardware and then you have my interest instead of forcing interested customers to overpay for the hardware (folks who don't want to build can buy the Drobo line, those who want to go the DIY route can simply purchase a license for the software)

  • Ray

    This is a comment to my post above, thats if Microsoft does not all of a sudden decide we cant get the Vail software only and that we may be forced into getting it there OEM with their hardware, Hmmm

    Right now I am testing Amahi/grayhole because I am not going to be pushed into hardware/software combo, I got everything up and running but I am trying to get the computer backup part right. If I find a good solution to computer backup with Amahi/grayhole I may just stick with it. The Microsoft and all vendors need to come up with the golden egg and inform us now of what mite be coming if Vail is to be saved before its too late, the clock is ticking.

    Ray

  • Mark

    Does anyone else have the sneaky suspision that this is about money? Is WHS too cheap a solution for many of the problems computer users have? It seems to me that WHS Is a better product for SBS than the other solutions that MS has for SBS. I have 13 hard drives in my server. A Drobo 8 bay is $1600. If this is about money and killing the competition then shame on MS.

  • Ray

    I would never buy a Drobo or any other OEM for the matter for my WHS, I like building my own and having the flex of being able to upgrade at will using off the shelf parts, my case holds 24 drives and I got it for 399.00, I wanted to plan ahead so I dont need to buy another case for a very long time if ever.

    Vail is dead as I see it, many have already installed other software including myself to plan for this vail I mean FAIL.

  • scoob101

    I was tempted by a Drobo, but I`m getting suspicious that the device is not as bullet proof as they make out. I took a look on youtube for videos, and noted a number of people with problems, lost data and poor support experiences.

    Then I go over to the Drobo forums, to get a more balanced view from Drobo users. And I discover that you cannot access the drobo forums unless you have a drobo serial number!!!!

    This is very odd behaviour, and it makes me very suspicious about the company.

    • Ray

      Scoob101.
      I agree with you, thats very strange.

      • Damian

        Very sketchy indeed. I have found that any time tech companies try to block/hide access to user feedback there is a reason for that… I am sure the folks at Drobo will claim they do this to keep spam/unwarranted comments on the forum, but this is nothing more then an excuse. At least allow anyone to view the forums by simply signing up without the need to own a Drobo.

        Allowing for Drobo to send direct advertising to my email account on behalf of WGS is pathetic, should we start expecting this with every partner WGS gets???

        The biggest concern I would have with the Drobos is performance when streaming high bitrate content, I cannot seem to find any user feedback regarding (I guess because user feedback are hidden on the forums)

        • Terry Walsh

          Damian,

          If you sign up to receive emails from WGS, expect to receive emails with reader offers and discounts from us once in a while. We sent the email, not Drobo.

          If you don't want to receive emails, don't sign up or unsubscribe. It's really simple. Don't take it as a personal affront.

          Terry

  • Ray

    scoob101,
    I agree, that is very strange. Data Rob, Please allow us to look on your forums to see what other user are saying, this behave only raises red flags to us.

  • wittgenfrog

    Fundamentally DROBO offers a very expensive and horribly limited REPLACEMENT for WHS. For an approximately similar price to (say) Tranquil, who are at the expensive end of WHS you get a box which has limited expandability and few of the basic functions of WHS.

    I too want single-instance storage, I want automatic PC backup, and I want the flexibility to turn my "storage" into a home Media Hub. I don't see DROBO offering any of those things….

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