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Q&A: Drobo's Jim Sherhart on Shared Storage for vSphere

An interview on what makes their storage devices better than what the competition has come with so far.

I recently got an announcement that Drobo, producer of SMB to mid-size shared storage arrays, was now offering Automated Data-Aware Tiering in their product line. This new data tiering option uses both SSD and traditional hard drives in the same unit and intelligently stores the most-accessed data on the higher performing drives. In their words, doing this allows SMBs to "immediately and dynamically optimize application performance." Certainly, I had heard of storage tiering before but it was always a "high end" storage feature, not something I thought I would see in an SMB-to-midsize array.

I inquired with Drobo about obtaining an evaluation unit for my home lab and ended up having a conversation with Drobo's Jim Sherhart about the new tiering as well as what makes Drobo different from the other arrays that I already have in my lab (a Synology DS211+ and an Iomega IX4-200D).

Of course I had heard good things about Drobo before from TechField Day, but it was interesting to hear the latest news from Drobo. I was specifically interested in whether or not Drobo could offer be better performance, easier data management, and what makes Drobo a good fit for SMBs and vSphere home labs (two things that are near and dear to my heart).

Jim ended up agreeing to do a Q&A for me for this blog, because I wanted to be able to share our conversation with other vSphere Admins, out on the Web. I think you'll find this interesting:

David Davis: What do you do for Drobo?
I currently run Marketing and Business Development.

Where was Drobo's original customer focus and where is it today?
The original focus of Drobo was to deliver sophisticated storage with automated data protection to folks that either weren't interested in becoming storage experts or simply didn't have the time. While this focus is still evident in our products today, our scope has expanded from "prosumers" and creative professionals to include small and medium sized businesses as well as departments within larger organizations.

Why did you add SSD to your new array?
There are many use cases -- both with our professional and business customers -- where additional transactional performance provides huge benefits. The challenge with SSDs is cost, which is why a tiered solution similar to our Automated Data-Aware Tiering is so important. Because we automatically tier data between high-capacity hard drives and a few SSDs, we are able to deliver the performance benefits at a much lower price that most current SSD solutions.

Over 60 percent of our 25,000 business customers use their Drobo storage array with virtualization, and a majority of those folks are running transactional applications such as Microsoft Exchange and SQL Server. The ability to add a few SSDs to one of our arrays and have all applications instantly accelerated is something that will benefit all of our business customers.

Are there other similar solutions available or is this the first around this price point?
There are other solutions out there that can do SSD tiering, but most are expensive and still require a professional services engagement to configure. Our target customer -- SMBs with approximately 250 employees -- typically don't have huge storage budgets or dedicated storage personnel. What they really appreciate about our business solutions is that we deliver advanced features usually reserved for much more expensive storage solutions and a level of automation that allows our storage arrays to easily be managed by someone who may not be a storage specialist.

What makes your tiering different from other solutions?
There are four key areas where our solution is unique:

  1. Zero-configuration. Install the SSDs and you're done. The array will automatically recognize the SSDs, auto-create a performance tier, and begin to promote transactional data.
  2. Immediate. Many of the high-end tiering solutions place all data on the bulk tier and then promote transactional data after days or weeks of analysis. All Drobo arrays are data-aware, which allows us to make an intelligent, on-the-fly decision of where data should reside. Transactional data goes immediately to the SSDs and sequential data goes right to the hard drives. We also promote and demote data over time, but the time-to-benefit for SSDs is minutes.
  3. Application Independent. Unlike some of the high-end solutions that require administrative intervention to point specific apps to specific RAID sets or arrays, Drobo customers can simply point all apps at the Drobo array and it will automatically accelerate all apps by getting data on the appropriate tier.
  4. Affordable. Unlike most tiering solutions that are aimed at the enterprise, Drobo's automated tiering solution was designed from the ground up for SMBs. For customers that cannot afford SSDs today, they can buy a Drobo without and add SSDs at any point in time. No other solution on the market offers this level of flexibility and investment protection. On top of that, we do have configurations that make SSDs affordable on Day 1. For example, we have a standard configuration that includes 18TB of HDDs and 600GB of SSDs that starts at a list price of less than $18,000.

What do you say to those who say that Drobo costs more?
There is a perception that our professional products are premium priced, but once people try our products and experience how easy they are to expand by literally adding or replacing a drive on the fly, they are typically customers for life. In fact, almost half of all Drobo business products are either bought or recommended by someone who was first introduced to Drobo's professional products. When you factor in the time saved the first time you need to expand, that's where Drobo switches from premium product to screaming bargain.

Why is Drobo the best solution for vSphere labs and the SMB ?
One of the key features we usually do not get a chance to discuss is our thin provisioning and thin reclamation, which is easily on par with top solutions in the industry. When you think about a lab environment, there is a lot of data creation and data destruction as different tests are continually ran. Our ability to automatically thin provision and then automatically reclaim deleted data blocks has huge benefits in both lab and real world environments.

Regarding SMBs, many are trying to virtualize for the first time, getting a quote on a traditional SAN, and realizing they need to look at alternatives to move the project forward. The value and ease of use we provide for someone who may be installing their first SAN cannot be overstated. I don't have hard stats, but I would be willing to bet that we have "green lighted" thousands of virtualization projects that got stalled due to storage costs.

Stay Tuned!
I plan to be evaluating a Drobo unit in my home vSphere lab and I'll be blogging about the experience here. Stay tuned! For more information on Drobo, checkout this Chalk Talk video on automated data-aware tiering, taken at TechField Day.

About the Author

David Davis is a well-known virtualization and cloud computing expert, author, speaker, and analyst. David’s library of popular video training courses can be found at Pluralsight.com. To contact David about his speaking schedule and his latest project, go to VirtualizationSoftware.com.

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