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Drobo doubles up storage robot capacity

4 slots good, 8 slots better

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Desktop external storage supplier Data Robotics has doubled up the slot capacity of its Drobo product to produce the 8-slot Drobo Pro, enabling it to sell networked block storage into markets served by low-end commodity NAS (network-attached storage) vendors such as Buffalo, Iomega, Seagate and others.

The original Drobo product is a table-top, glossy black, curved edge, squarish box with a 4-slot chassis into which customers pack their own 3.5-inch SATA drives. It has a maximum capacity of 4TB with 1TB drives (8TB with 2TB drives, 16TB firmware support max), and differently-sized drives can be mixed and matched. The Drobo box has blue capacity take-up lights, and green-yellow-blue traffic light-like LEDs to say when additional capacity or a new drive is needed.

If you replace one of the drives with a larger capacity drive then the Drobo unit reconfigures itself. The box can recover from single disk failures and a DroboShare add-on turns the device into a networked storage facility using NAS protocols.

The basic idea is to use the box as a chassis into which you slot new drives when needed, taking advantage of the disk drive industry's ability to produce larger capacity drives over time at a lower cost.

Some commentators have likened the Drobo compared to other external drives, to the iPod compared to other portable music players.

Since June 2007, some 60,000 Drobos have been sold and the venture capital-backed Data Robotics, founded by Dr Geoff Barrall, the founder and ex-CEO of ASIC-accelerated NAS supplier BlueArc, is fairly close to profitability.

Drobos have become very popular among so-called Prosumers, but some have been bought for use in small branches and outlets of enterprises and franchise-based organisations. The enlarged Drobo Pro, capable of storing 16TB using today's drives, should extend the technology's appeal to small enterprises needing a very easy-to use product.

The Drobo Pro is an oblong, 3U-high desktop box, still with a glossy black casing, curved edges, blue lights to signal capacity takeup, and traffic-style lights to signal status. You can optionally buy it in a rackmount format - with added "ears" to allow rack fitment.

The product's firmware, running on an ARM-type processor, uses RAID-like technology called BeyondRAID, and virtualises all the storage into a single protected pool, tracking where each block of data is stored on each disk. This technology allows drives to be of different capacities and avoids the lengthy rebuild times associated with traditional RAID schemes.

The firmware can cope with 4TB drives, offering a maximum of 64TB of capacity. The supported interconnects are FireWire 800, USB 2.0 and gigabit Ethernet (single server host iSCSI) with hosts using Microsoft's iSCSI initiator.

Barrall says that the Drobo Pro virtually manages itself and is self-monitoring and self-healing with dual disk redundancy, that's the equivalent of RAID 6. It also uses thin provisioning and so-called Smart Volumes to maximise storage utilisation. Volumes are created from the single pool of storage, can be resized, and there can be up to 16 16TB volumes.

Marketing-wise Data Robotics has been astute in providing a simple SAN-in-box-like SMB block storage product when all around are getting their feet dirty in the commodity NAS box street fight; think Seagate BlackArmor NAS, Buffalo TeraStation and LinkStation, Iomega StorCenter Pro NAS, La Cie and others.

What about cloud storage ideas? A Drobo spokesperson said: "We understand that more and more customers are asking for the ability to back up into the cloud. It’s something we’re thinking about and exploring but have no plans to announce... We don’t have any formal partnerships with third-party vendors today but it’s an option we are currently exploring for certain use cases."

Looking at the sales ramp, around half the 60,000 Drobos were sold in the last two quarters, meaning increased sales in the recession. This could imply that 90,000 Drobos could be sold this year, with that earning Data Robotics, say, $22m, based on an average system value to Drobo of $250. Add in a guesstimate for Drobo Pro sales of 10,000 units at an ASV of $750 to the company, and that gives 2009 revenues of around $30m. If the Drobo Pro is as popular as the Drobo we could see an IPO as early as 2011.

The entry-level DroboPro is $1,299, with the UK retail price being £1,099 including VAT. ®

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