KVM switch is likely to suit server farms

Avocent Corp. breaks new ground with its recent introduction of the DS1800, a KVM switch that runs over a standard Ethernet network.

Avocent Corp. breaks new ground with its recent introduction of the DS1800, a KVM switch that runs over a standard Ethernet network. But although the DS1800 has the impressive capability to extend the control of servers through the IP network, its mediocre performance and high price might deter some IT managers from jumping into this new technology.

Avocent was formed last year by the merger of Apex Inc. and Cybex Corp., both established providers of keyboard, video and mouse switches for high-density server farms at Internet service providers, data centers and large corporate sites.

The DS1800 is the first device eWeek Labs has seen that allows administrators to control the KVM functions of computer systems over a standard Ethernet network. Avocent describes its technology as "KVM over IP"; the DS1800 converts analog KVM signals into digital signals and encapsulates the information into IP packets in real time. The data is piped through compression engines in the DS1800 and transmitted over the network to a client running a GUI called DSView.

The biggest advantage the DS1800 has over standard KVM switches is improved connectivity. The DS1800 not only can control as many as eight computer systems with a single keyboard, mouse and monitor, as a normal KVM switch does, but also can perform that same task over a LAN and even the Internet.

These improved capabilities come at a hefty price; the DS1800 started shipping last month for $10,000. In contrast, a standard eight-port KVM switch costs $1,000 to $2,000.

Although the DS1800s price is steep, the switch can simplify management of remote computer systems by providing access via TCP/IP connections, minimizing the number of bulky KVM cables and providing extended connectivity without the need for third-party software such as Symantec Corp.s pcAnywhere.

Although the initial configuration of the DS1800 is quick and easy, setting up the components that enable KVM functionality over the network is more complicated. The DS1800 system requires the installation of three programs: DSAuthentication service, DSAdmin and DSView.

DSAuthentication services main function is to control user access to computer systems connected to the DS1800. It also keeps a record of system information like computer type and rack location in a database. DSAuthentication service runs only on Windows NT 4.0 servers with Service Pack 4 or later.

The DSAdmin application manages access permissions and user configuration for the DS1800.

The DSView GUI allows KVM control of systems connected to the DS1800. DSView can be installed on any NT system that can locate the authentication server.

In tests, the DS1800 provided adequate keyboard controls over a test network when the remote systems were running with a resolution of 800 by 600 pixels; any higher resolution resulted in increased latency, even over fast Ethernet connections. We recommend setting the remote systems resolution to 800 by 600 pixels or lower to minimize latency.

Although we performed keyboard commands without a problem, the mouse synchronization is poor, and often the latency was so great that we had to stop moving the mouse and wait for the remote mouse to "catch up," rendering mouse commands virtually useless. Thankfully, DSView has keystroke macros that perform multiple key sequences with a click of a button, so we could minimize use of the mouse.