Test Center: An IP KVM for the little guy

IP KVMs have revolutionized datacenter management, granting IT unprecedented remote access to the datacenter via a Web browser. Collocation services just wouldn't be practical without IP KVMs and other types of remote-management technology.

The problem, however, is that vendors have taken a kitchen-sink approach to remote management. With the Avocent DSView system or the Raritan Commander, for example, you have the ability to integrate out-of-band management such as IPMI (Intelligent Platform Management Interface), iLo (Intergrated Lights-Out), DRAC (Dell Remote Access Controller), and so forth with serial consoles, power management, and other enterprise-oriented features. The end result: complex, expensive systems ill-suited for the SMB market.

[ Considering a higher-end KVM? Read what the InfoWorld Test Center had to say about Avocent's offering. | Discover other tools on the market to pimp your datacenter. ]

There is demand out there, however, for IP KVM access to just a few servers. The AdderView CATxIP 1000 (image) from Adder is purely and simply an IP KVM that meets SMBs' remote-management needs beautifully. It doesn't deliver the tight integration of management features that you'll find in offerings from Raritan and Avocent. It also doesn't scale as well as the enterprise-oriented alternatives. But then again, the AdderView is far less expensive.

Simply splendid

Unlike the big boys who relied on custom-written ActiveX or Java applets for remote desktop control, Adder saw that VNC (virtual network computing) was already doing a better job, and it was easy to license the technology from the folks at RealVNC. So in one swoop, Adder now has IPKVM access to just about every computer platform on Earth -- including my Nokia N810 Internet Tablet.

Adder also listened to the marketplace that was very tired of the huge cables found on older stand-alone KVMs taking up valuable rack space. The company replaced them with analog CAMs (computer access modules) that run the KVM over CAT5 (or better) cable from the server to the main AdderView unit for a maximum of 10 meters. That length is OK for a tabletop full of branch-office servers, but not long enough for most datacenters.

Because these CAMs are analog, care should be taken to keep them away from power feeds. From my experience with analog KVM dongles, you do not want to mix different types of cables (such as T68A versus T568B). Just mixing CAT5 with CAT6 cables on the same analog link is a formula for some truly funky connections. Moreover, Adder does not recommend using patch panels.

All major setup functions of the AdderView are performed on the physical console, eliminating the hassle of pulling out my handy USB-to-serial dongle. During setup, I noticed a couple of oddities. First, the USB ports are device-specific: Plugging a mouse into the keyboard port or vice versa won't work. I wouldn't think that USB devices would be so particular. Second, the Ethernet port is on the front of the AdderView, which doesn't make much sense if you plan on racking these units. It would be better to have everything on the back -- at least from my datacenter-centric view of the world.

Notably, there is a serial option port, which Adder suggests using to set up a daisy-chained line of controllable power boxes. With only two dipswitches to control addressing of the boxes in the chain, however, you're limited to a maximum of four controlled power boxes. I'm not sure if using DB9 cables for daisy-chaining is a good thing or bad, but seems odd when RJ-45s are in place for everything else.

The tricky parts

From a management perspective, as mentioned, Adder doesn't offer the single-click convenience that you'll find in pricier systems. Still, you don't lose access to management functionality entirely: Just open up a Telnet window to get at iLo, DRAC, or IPMI service processes. You'll want to take good notes, however, as to which address is which. To the big boys' credit, making these additional management pieces available via a simple right-click removes the "oops" factor of typing in the incorrect service processor address and rebooting the wrong machine.

AdderView offers a particularly clever trick: You can control a collection of dual-headed computers by tying two KVM units together via their serial-option ports, then sending a CAM from each KVM to each video port on the computer. The trick does requires that you have two KVMs for each of your dual-headed video connections. The benefit here is that you don't have to pay for an extra console video port if you don't want to, but you have the option to add it later without the need to trade in the old unit. I would like to see a model in Adder's lineup offers DVI instead of analog video, especially considering that DVI has replaced VGA for most multiheaded setups.

The AdderView CATx1000 IP is a low-cost, no-frills IP KVM that simply does its job without any fuss. Thanks to VNC, even a branch office can have remote access to their servers, right down to making BIOS changes and watching for errors as systems boots up. It can't compete with enterprise-oriented IP KVMs in terms of scalability or easy access to management tools -- but it's targeted at SMBs, not large companies, and it's priced accordingly.

This story, "Test Center: An IP KVM for the little guy" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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