Data Robotics' CEO Tom Buiocchi: Drobo threads prosumer, SMB needle

We caught up with Tom Buiocchi, CEO of Data Robotics, to talk storage, Drobo, virtualization and the prosumer and SMB markets.

Talk home storage with a techie and chances are pretty good that Data Robotics' Drobo will come up. The Drobo has a serious fanbase and has benefited from strong word-of-mouth among prosumers as well as small businesses.

Now Data Robotics is positioning itself nicely. For consumers, the Drobo is a premium storage device. For small businesses, the Drobo line occupies an area that most storage vendors have avoided: The sub $20,000 system.

We caught up with Tom Buiocchi, CEO of Data Robotics, to talk shop.

On Drobo's sweet spot, Buiocchi said that Data Robotics is a tale of two companies. For SMBs, Drobos sell in the $15,000 and under storage category. The other core market is the prosumer---creative professional type---that will spend $500 to $1000---on storage. In SMBs, the core price band for Drobos runs $2,000 to $5,000. "We aim to make storage easy and affordable so that any layman can use," said Buiocchi. "We want to build a product my mom can use." Buiocchi argued that storage really hasn't innovated via ease of use.

On the competition, Buiocchi said Drobo competes primarily with NetGear, LaCie and Buffalo on the prosumer side. "Iomega to a lesser degree," he said. On the business side, Data Robotics often sees Dell and Hewlett-Packard.

Coopetition with Dell. Buiocchi said Dell is the company that Data Robotics also sees in the field for small enterprise business. The Drobo Elite often competes with Equallogic. Often, SMBs will buy servers and implement virtualization and a value added reseller will toss in an Equallogic box. "We're the plan B when budgets are exceeded," said Buiocchi. An SMB will buy an Equallogic system and back up with Drobo Elite. Meanwhile, Dell is reselling Drobos on its site. "Dell is our fastest growing reseller," said Buiocchi.

For distribution, Data Robotics is 100 percent channel. Ingram Micro is the distributor to retailers like Amazon and CDW. "On the prosumer side, B&H and Amazon are our biggest partners," said Buiocchi. B&H, a retailer known well by creative pros, is huge for Drobo sales. "Two-thirds of our low end products are connected to Macs," he said. Given that reality, it's not surprising that Apple sells Drobos on On the business side, Drobos are attached to Windows PCs 60 percent to 70 percent of the time.

Why not sell direct? "We can't afford sales guys," said Buiocchi. "Distribution guys are great and the channel can scale us broadly."

On verticals, Buiocchi said the Drobo line is selling well in government, healthcare and educational accounts. "Anywhere there are budget considerations and a lack of storage folks," said Buiocchi.

As for virtualization, Buiocchi said the Drobo line is riding the wave. Drobo has VMware certification and is working toward Hyper-V and Xen certs. "When go to server virtualization, you need 30 percent to 40 percent more storage," said Buiocchi. Data Robotics runs on VMware and in the field SMBs seem pretty content with VMware essentials, said Buiocchi, who added that Microsoft's Hyper-V is also garnering consideration.

On marketing, Buiocchi said that word-of-mouth has helped Drobo a lot. "The uber geeks love Drobo," said Buiocchi. "These guys are often the IT guys in their families and tell people that they should look at a Drobo."

Regarding emerging markets, Data Robotics is looking for a distribution partner in Latin America, said Buiocchi. The company has outposts in the UK, Germany and France as well as Singapore. Europe is strong for SMBs.

The storage landscape. Buiocchi said Data Robotics is in the business of "hunting elephants." He was referring to how the company is dwarfed by most of its rivals. "We're staying in the segment NetApp walked away from years ago---anything under $20,000," said Buiocchi. "No one is focused on it so we can run hard and fast." Buiocchi said he liked the positioning for the company. Drobo is a premium product for consumers, but a screaming deal for businesses.

How about cloud storage providers? Buiocchi noted that cloud storage providers have a role, but the big hurdle is that it takes too long to upload and download data in size. Instead, Drobo is looking to partner with cloud storage providers. "The biggest problem is that cloud storage is like shoving a grapefruit through a garden hose," said Buiocchi. "Bandwidth is the issue. Our average Drobo holds 2.7 TB on the prosumer side." Simply put, that's a lot of data to get to---and pull from---the cloud in bulk. Those size drives can lead to quirky backup plans. For instance, Buiocchi has a neighbor "that fills up his hard drive, walks to a neighbor and leaves it at his house." Buiocchi expects a hybrid cloud-local storage approach to prevail for the foreseeable future.

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