Geoff Barrall founded BlueArc at the high end of NAS performance. He then founded Data Robotics, maker of the Drobo low end arrays. A group of bloggers visited DR last month and a lucky few – not including me – took brand new Drobo2 units home.

The idea
For those who haven’t been following Drobo, the idea was to build a simple-as-possible-but-no-simpler storage array for data intensive civilians. Folks like photographers, videographers, musicians, scientists and designers who munge a lot of data.

Drobo users can put any size drive in the box and the capacity will be added automagically. The usable capacity for protected data is roughly the sum of the 3 smallest drives in the box.

The key point though is that civilians don’t have to know about volume sizes, drive capacities or configuring RAID. Stick a couple of drives in the box and Drobo tells you what you’ve got.

Need more, add another drive. Once the slots are filled, pull the smallest drive out and add a larger drive. Don’t get too frisky though: with large drives the data movement takes many hours.

The instruction manual is printed on the inside of the faceplate that covers the drives. Big green and red lights give drive status.

Product line
Data access and performance are 2 sides of the same coin. If the performance is too slow for the application, the data is essentially not available – at least until you can move it to something faster.

The gen1 Drobo was USB only and crippled by anemic performance. Fine for photographs, but any decent-sized video file would choke it.

The second Drobo – now the low end model – added FireWire 800 to the mix. You could archive video on it, but not edit it in situ. About a year ago they introduced a 8 drive version with GigE and single-server iSCSI support and a dual-drive failure protection.

Last month Drobo added 2 new models: the Drobo S with 5 drives and eSATA; and the Drobo Elite, an 8 drive unit with dual GigE and multi-server iSCSI support. The latter is spec’d at 255 virtual LUNs, but ~100 is more realistic.

Now fellow blogger Devang Panchigar over at StorageNerve has published performance test results (pdf) of the current low-end model.

The net/net: USB tops out at about 32 MB/sec; while FW800 manages 52 MB/sec. Neither is fast enough for HD video, but FW800 will handle standard def video just fine.

I’m planning to buy a 5 slot Drobo S later this month with the help of a gift discount coupon from DR. After I’ve played with it I’ll let you know what I think. One problem already: getting a decent Mac eSATA driver for a PCIe card.

The StorageMojo take
DR is moving up market. They plan to stay with a self-imposed $15k price ceiling. With 3 TB drives right around the corner, a raw 24 TB iSCSI SAN array could come in at $8k or less.

$300/TB for a capacity large enough for many SMBs is disruptive – especially when the easy-enough-for-mom management is factored in. If they go public next year I suspect there will be a bidding war for them in ’11.

At $400 for an empty 4 slot box they aren’t competing on price either. They are showing the industry what can be done with a premium price – compared to the Buffalos and Iomegas – array that offers much greater ease of use. Their growth rate proves that is a popular message.

The bigger issue for old-line vendors is that the SMB market is about to get a lot tougher – as if it wasn’t tough enough. The enterprise ROBO market is also in play.

DR is the one to beat in the prosumer storage market.

Courteous comments welcome, of course. DR was a sponsor of the tech blogger excursion that flew me to Silicon Valley. And just for the record, Drobo doesn’t use ZFS.