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Drobo, Connected Data merge; combine low-end NAS with file sync/share

Drobo founder Geoff Barrall said the low-end NAS vendor will return to its simple storage goals after merger with file-sharing vendor Connected Data.

Low-end NAS vendor Drobo and file-sharing company Connected Data completed a merger in late June, brining both companies under the control of their founder, Geoff Barrall.

Barrall is again CEO of Drobo, a position he held after starting the company in April 2005, until he was replaced by Tom Buiocchi in December 2009. Barrall started Connected Data, another SMB storage company, in November 2011. SearchSMBStorage this week spoke with Barrall about his plans for merging Connected Data's Transporter file-sharing appliance with Drobo's file-storage boxes, and why he came back to Drobo.

What's the status of the new company? Is it called Drobo or Connected Data?

Geoff Barrall: We're a combined entity. I'm running both Drobo and Connected Data, and they're one and the same. Drobo will be the primary brand moving forward, but we'll maintain the Transporter product brand from Connected Data. So there will be Drobos and Transporters, but everything will be sold by Drobo.

Tell me about how you made it back to Drobo after more than three years, and why you left in the first place.

Barrall: I missed it, certainly. I always felt like it was unfinished business, but the company wanted to head in an enterprise-y direction, which wasn't what Drobo was for me. So I left, and we started Connected Data and focused in the same space again. The move into larger enterprise systems didn't work well for Drobo, which wasn't a surprise to me because it's not what the technology is for. The board was kind enough to call me a couple of months ago and see if I might have an interest in coming back. I thought the opportunity to combine Connected Data and Drobo and get back focused on the company's knitting was too good to pass up.

Will Drobo get away from the enterprise completely?

Barrall: Drobo derives about one-sixth of its revenue from high-end products, so it's an important part of the business. What we're not going to do is compete with [Dell] EqualLogic, [Hewlett-Packard] LeftHand or any of those array vendors. That's definitely not what we're trying to do as a company. A lot of enterprises and large businesses buy Drobos, but we're focused around the individual. The reason businesses would buy Drobos is because they have individual needs where Drobo is more suitable, not necessarily because they're trying to build out their data center.

Our core is prosumers and individuals, and we want to keep having the simplest storage for people to use. If you need storage, but managing storage doesn't appeal to you, and you want the simplest, most reliable thing you can use, we think that's Drobo. It's storage that gets out of the way.

Did the board make this change because Drobo is in financial trouble?

Barrall: Not at all. I wouldn't have managed expenditures the same way if I had been CEO over the last three years. Expenditure was far too high, and we rectified the issues around that in short order. Now with expenditures appropriate to our target market and the kind of business we are, the company is in a really healthy state, actually. The company is stable and revenues are good.

After leaving Drobo, you spent 19 months at Overland Storage. Why did you start Connected Data and get into file sharing?

Barrall: Connected Data was founded by a group of us from Drobo. My senior team at Connected Data mostly came from Drobo. The core engineers were all ex-Drobo, so we're all coming home. We knew that people like Dropbox and cloud services; they love having computer syncing; they love the ability to access files and backup wherever they are. But cloud services have two big issues. First, they're far, far, far too expensive. It's now cheaper to store all your data on SSDs than it is to store it on the cloud, which is crazy. And the second thing is, privacy is a huge issue over cloud storage now.

Our feeling was that while people loved these file-sharing services, you needed something that worked exactly the same way, felt exactly the same to use, but was a fraction of the cost and was completely private.

How does your file-sharing technology work?

Barrall: We developed a 100% hardware solution. You buy these little Transporters and you stick them wherever you want the data to be, and you can connect them into large networks, and they exchange data with each other. What we do that Dropbox doesn't do -- because we have larger capacity -- is you can have large collections of files on it that sync between Transporters but don't necessarily sync with your computers. For large file collections you don't' want on every computer, you can store them on a Transporter and use it like a NAS [network-attached storage].

Our solution is $199 for a basic unit, and you own it; it's completely private. In just under six months we've sold over 5,000 Transporters.

How much capacity does a Transporter hold?

Barrall: It holds any 2.5-inch drive, so you can have up to 2 TB.

Where's the synergy between Drobos and Transporters?

Barrall: One of the pieces of feedback we got from customers was they wanted multi-drive Transporters. One of the biggest asks from Drobo customers is the ability to sync them together, or back up data or replicate between Drobos in the data center, which is exactly what Transporter can help with. The combination of technologies gives both sets of customers what they're looking for.

Can you combine those technologies into one device?

Barrall: Absolutely. Because the engineering teams have the same history, we're hopeful that combining technology for new and existing customers will be possible in short order.

Will you continue Drobo's partnership with Barracuda to offer cloud file sharing on Drobo NAS boxes?

Barrall: I don't know much about the Barracuda deal. One of the Barracuda guys called me and said they wanted to retain the relationship and we should meet, so we will. We're proud of the Transporter technology, but it doesn't preclude other services. Drobo NAS, for example, can host apps that can sync with all sorts of services -- and that's fine with us. If you want the low-cost private solution that Transporter offers, that's great. If you have a legitimate reason to sync with a cloud service, that's good too. We want to offer you more choices.

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I always thought the Drobo product was pretty interesting.