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Data Robotics Releases Business-class Arrays

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Today Data Robotics (Drobo) are announcing a new range of storage devices specifically targeted at business customers.  However this is a market that already has many players; what are they offering and how will they fare in this already competitive market?

New Devices

First of all, let’s take a look at the new storage devices.  Nomenclature has been changed over previous models (business people like nice code names) and so we have the following new devices:

  • B800fs – 8-bay NAS model
  • B800i – 8-bay iSCSI SAN model
  • B1200i – 12-bay iSCSI SAN model

It’s a pretty easy guess that the codes mean “B” for business, “fs” for file sharing “i” for iSCSI and the numbers designate the drive count in the chassis.  What’s new here from a hardware perspective is the 12-drive model, specifically designed as a rack-mount device.  Now business-class storage devices are very different from those used in an office environment by (for example) media developers or for local backup.  Consequently Drobo have had to step up to the mark and improve the resiliency of the existing hardware.  Therefore the new B1200i support all hot-swappable components (except the passive backplane) and additional power supplies and Ethernet connections have been added.  Note that the B800 models have not been upgraded in this way and still have a single power supply and dual Ethernet connections.  Images of the new devices are shown in this post.  It’s interesting to see that the B1200i rear view shows four expansion slots for connectivity, of which only two appear to be used.  Presumably the other two are for future expansion.

Software and Features

As mentioned earlier, the small device business market is a competitive place; EMC have just released their VNXe product, HP have the P2000 array; IBM recently released the StorWize v7000.  These storage appliances are fully specified devices offering advanced features for a low cost.  The features and software component could be an issue for Drobo.  The new models offer the excellent BeyondRAID functionality and only an additional tiering  option.

  • BeyondRAID is Drobo’s thin provisioning and RAID technology combined.  In essence, data is laid out across the disks using RAID at the block level rather than replicating whole disks.  This methodology enables dis-similar disk capacities to be used in the device and for disks to be replaced or upgraded over time in order to increase capacity.  BeyondRAID provides the customers many advantages; disks can be purchased and added to the system as required, even though a greater logical capacity of storage has been configured.  This logical capacity doesn’t need to be changed as physical capacity increases.  Drives of greater capacity can be added over time, so customers can purchase the most effective price/capacity drive for their needs.  Also a single drive can be replaced without rebuilding the entire RAID set, only copying data that was on any removed drive.
  • Data-aware Tiering.  The new Drobo model now support automated tiering of data across different device types, including SATA, SAS and SSD disks.  Tiering uses fixed algorithms to determine the best placement for data based on usage.  My first thoughts were that a fixed tiering algorithm might not be appropriate, however taking a step back and looking at the market this device is targeted for, many customers taking their first steps into SAN technology may not want or need to understand how things work under the covers.

However good the hardware is, ease of management is all about the software.  As a result, Drobo have released a new version of their dashboard, screenshots of which can be seen in the attached images.  Better management software for Drobo was always a requirement.  The existing dashboard doesn’t scale easily with multiple devices and there are a few major flaws within the software that would reduce the appeal to business.  It appears that the scalability issues have been addressed, but only a test-drive will tell how much better the software really is.

Summary

The entry-level SAN array market is becoming increasingly competitive.  There are many companies targeting this space, not including the big storage names I’ve mentioned earlier.  Data Robotics are pitching the new business models from £1409 ($2000) upwards, which presumably is for the B800i rather than the 12-bay model.  Although this does exclude disks, the price does seem competitive, as drives can be purchased by the customer at the lowest cost and added as required.  The competition will cite lack of features, but these are easily added with software releases and will be key to the success of the new devices.  In addition, the management software needs to be business-class or will be a major stumbling block.  Here are just a few features of the existing software that need to be improved:

  • Pre-emptive hot-swap - currently a drive replacement is a recovery operation.  When a drive is removed, the Drobo rebuilds RAID from the remaining disks.  It would be better to allow this replacement process to happen pre-emptively, copying data off to a new disk (if slots are available) before the a disk is removed.  This also reduces the impact on performance as RAID rebuilds need to happen as quickly as possible, whereas planned data migrations can be run as background tasks.
  • iSCSI Management - the existing iSCSI interface isn’t fully featured.  The dashboard only indicates when a single host has logged into an iSCSI target/LUN but doesn’t indicate the server name or IP address.  This can be frustrating in large environments where, for instance, an over-zealous VMware host acquires all LUNs on a device.  Sharing of LUNs is also not permitted today.
  • Capacity Management - although the Drobo understands thin provisioning, it only reports utilised capacity for devices that have a recognised file system and are connected to a host running the Drobo dashboard.  However the device itself must know how much data is being used by each LUN, irrespective of the file format.  That data needs to be presented to the user, otherwise real capacity planning can’t be done.

Overall, I think Drobo are making an exciting move into the business space.  Price sensitivity is an issue in this market and the initial costs are low enough to be attractive to many new customers.  Data Robotics also offer a maintenance contract (DroboCare) for replacement parts, another key business feature.  Key success factors will be the improvement management interface and addition of new features to the device over time.  With 150,000 devices sold to date, Drobo appears to be a force to be reckoned with for the future.

About Chris M Evans

Chris M Evans has worked in the technology industry since 1987, starting as a systems programmer on the IBM mainframe platform, while retaining an interest in storage. After working abroad, he co-founded an Internet-based music distribution company during the .com era, returning to consultancy in the new millennium. In 2009 Chris co-founded Langton Blue Ltd (www.langtonblue.com), a boutique consultancy firm focused on delivering business benefit through efficient technology deployments. Chris writes a popular blog at http://blog.architecting.it, attends many conferences and invitation-only events and can be found providing regular industry contributions through Twitter (@chrismevans) and other social media outlets.
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