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

Two-thirds of its home storage sales are to Mac users

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 designed for small office or home office (SOHO) users, and the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company's marketing pitch was that its networked storage was idiot-proof but boasted sophisticated automation.

That message apparently resonated with one particular market segment: Apple Macintosh users, 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% or 5% of the PC market, but they're 65% of our attach rate on our [professional/consumer] products. The Apple customer gets the Drobo. It's like a cult."

As for Data Robotics' small business customers, 80% use the Internet SCSI protocol to attach their servers and computers to Drobo arrays.

Drobo FS
Data Robotic's Drobo FS array for backing up or sharing files over the Internet.

In an interview this week, Buiocchi discussed the future of Data Robotics, which has shipped 150,000 storage devices since in 2007 and is growing in revenue by 100% 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 CEO of Data Robotics 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 market from 20 years in the field, Buiocchi also knew how to take a company public -- something he hopes to do with Data Robotics 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 -- offer products for that market, none are so singularly focused on it as Data Robotics is, according to Liz Connor, an analyst at 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 estimates that the SOHO market represents up to $8 billion in annual revenue from sales of home storage networks and storage systems for small and midsize businesses.

Data Robotics, founded in 2005, focuses on companies with 10 or fewer employees and on home users who want to network multiple computers and devices. Its arrays use a virtualization algorithm that makes 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 Ph.d.s at Berkeley 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."

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