REVIEW: IP KVM devices

Some support simply cannot be accomplished over a VPN. That's when Ian Yates reaches for the IP KVM device, two of which he reviews here.

These days even small businesses seem to be spread out all over the place. Only the really small ones have just one location. Most have offices in several cities or several offices in the same city.

Worst of all, sometimes they have offices in several regional areas.

That last category is the hardest for IT to support when things go wrong, usually because they're too far way to reach by car without an overnight stop, and often the air services aren't all that regular. If you get the distress call before 9:00 AM maybe you can make the flight. Otherwise, regional offices are looking at some serious downtime.

For that reason, 'most everyone has a VPN link between their offices, using either a dedicated network if funds allow, or the Internet for those on a budget. Regional offices usually only have the Internet to choose from as there aren't that many leased lines available from ISPs outside capital cities and very large regionals such as Newcastle and Geelong. Somehow or other you've got the VPN link, and then you've got access to remote servers and desktops using RDC (Remote Desktop Connection) or a utility like Symantec's pcAnywhere (PCA).

Enter KVM

RCD and PCA are fine when the server is up but misbehaving. They're not much use when it's down for the count and you're relying on the local office "gofer" to handle things via your phone call. That's why larger organisations use racks of KVM (keyboard-video-mouse) switch boxes, which let you access downed servers right at the BIOS level. These KVMs are even affordable for small businesses, for local access within the same building to the server closet. But if you want to reach out to a KVM across the Internet things get expensive.

IP-enabled KVMs first appeared as an add-on to the serious kit used by data centres and network operations centres to manage their racks of equipment. They already had the KVM switches - they just needed a way to plug them into the Internet. But what about small businesses or branch offices? Often you only need a single, or perhaps dual, KVM out there, but you need Internet access even more urgently than you do around the head office or the suburbs. Now, finally, there are single-shot IP-enabled KVMs appearing on the market.

Raritan

One such gadget is the Dominion KX2I-101 from Raritan, a palm-sized, single-port KVM-over-IP solution. This little sucker is about the size of a pack of playing cards but a tad more pricey at $750 RRP. That's a fair slice of change, but you'd easily spend close to that amount on return airfares at short notice to say, Coffs Harbour or Bendigo, plus cab fares, and probably overnight accommodation if things don't get fixed before the last flight home. Not to mention the entire day wasted. Maybe the KX2-101 isn't so pricey after all.

Lantronix

There are other offerings available from vendors such as Lantronix, which offers its SecureLinx Spider single-port KVM over IP, for slightly less money than the Raritan offering. Price aside, both these KVMs do the same job, and do it very well. The KX2-101 gets its power from a PoE-capable switch, or it can be powered from the supplied wall-wart if you don't have a PoE switch out in the 'burbs. The Spider gets its power from any USB-port on the server it's attached to, or from a wall-wart, but not from PoE. There's a reasonable argument for choosing PoE if you have it, since with no Ethernet you're not going to be talking to anything anyway. If you don't have PoE then the KX2-101 makes you plug-in to the wall socket.

The Spider lets you grab power from the server, which isn't such a bad idea, since with no server power you won't be doing much. However, some servers can be wakened from powered down with a keyboard command, so if that's how your server behaves, then the wall-wart might be good insurance to reach out to a down server. With the KX2-101 you need a separate Ethernet port on the switch to get network access. With the Spider it has a mini-switch built-in so you can daisy chain it with the cable supplying Ethernet to the server.

You get the impression that the KX2-101 is designed to fit into a larger suite of KVMs at the main office, and if your data centre is loaded with Raritan kit, it would make good sense to stay with the family. Although the Spider will also play well with its big brothers and sisters in the Lantronix range, it appears to be aimed more towards the stand-alone small office with a few servers which need remote management, and the daisy-chaining Ethernet port saves either an upgrade to the branch office switch, or perhaps having to run a new cable if all the ports are occupied.

In operation both these tiny KVMs do the same thing - they let you act as though you are right there in the room with the server or other device you're controlling, while you're really sitting at your desk using your favourite web browser. And being browser-based, your management platform could be anything which runs a browser from Windows to Linux to Macintosh. Perhaps you're using an ASUS Eee PC while supping a beer at the local pub, hooked into the Ethernet with your NextG modem. Nobody will be able to tell. Inside the KVMs are Java-based communications applets, which ensure secure access to your remote servers - after all you don't want the entire Internet wandering around in there without permission.

What you get with KVM over IP

If you haven't used a low level KVM over IP before, it's quite a revelation to be able to get access to BIOS-level settings, and the all important messages that flash across the screen, before the operating system has booted. It's also easy to hit the F8-key and get into Active Directory Restore mode on a crotchety Windows server. Yeah, you might still need to ask Billy-Bob to insert the correct CD for you, but it sure beats trying to walk him through "Press F8 NOW! Yes, NOW, no, don't wait....NOW NOW....arggh. Look reboot and...this time...."

Of course, sometimes even with the lowest of low-level access you'll discover that nothing is working out there in the boonies and you're going to have to catch the first flight next morning with your toolkit and spares backpack. But either of these KVMs accessed over IP can stave off those in-between real disasters flights when the only thing wrong was the local gofer's overzealous cable tidying efforts!

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