KVM spells management relief

New IP-based technology gives administrators access to multiple servers from one PC

Behind every great government software application, there is usually a dedicated server,and sometimes two or three or more. With scores of software programs humming along — from databases to Web sites to enterprise resource planning systems — agency information technology staff can find themselves charged with feeding dozens or even hundreds of hungry hardware mouths.

"Sneaker net" was the nickname for the old way of tending to problems, namely getting up and walking across the office in order to sit face-to-face, so to speak, with the aggrieved system. It was never a good way to work, and lately, with the proliferation of servers and the pinch on staff budgets, it's become unacceptable for many larger organizations.

Thankfully, there's now a way to manage these multitudes that can spare the time (and footwear) of a busy IT staff. Called keyboard, video and mouse (KVM) switches, these rack-mountable systems combine computer monitor, keyboard and mouse signals from multiple servers and transmit them to a single console, where one administrator can happily oversee an army of servers. The switches also eliminate the need for the mounds of spaghetti-like wiring to connect racks of servers with several separate keyboards and displays.

More recently, KVM vendors discovered a new twist by taking their analog-based switches and adding support for TCP/IP networks. That allows them to increase the distance between servers and the KVM switch from a few yards to unlimited distances, via any dial-up connection. These products, dubbed KVM-over-IP switches, are just what many strapped IT shops need.

"Agencies have technicians who get problem calls at night and would rather use dial-in connections than drive to the office to fix them," said Lloyd Cohen, director of worldwide market analysis at IDC.

The Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (Spawar), which currently uses the older analog KVM switches, is interested in upgrading to KVM-over-IP products.

"We manage a lot of servers for other departments and would like to provide them with the ability to look in and see what is happening with their systems," said Bill Miller, computer operations deck department head at the Spawar IT Center, which oversees approximately 500 servers that provide naval leaders with command information.

The agency started using the analog KVM switches when it moved into a new facility in 1999.

In addition to eliminating the need for separate monitors and keyboards, KVM switches reduce the number of cables coming out of enterprise servers from three to one. Switches generally come in models that support from eight to 64 servers each.

The switches can also support applications running on different operating systems. "Because they consolidate management information into a central location, KVM switches make it much simpler for data center technicians to oversee a mixed server environment," according to Dick Wurst, director of marketing at CCC Network Systems Inc., a Hicksville, N.Y., KVM switch supplier.

KVM switches can cut costs compared to other techniques for systems management. For example, the switches themselves do not run a full-fledged operating system, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 2000, so departments can lower their software licensing fees. On the other hand, traditional systems management software has to run on a server that requires a full OS license, not to mention the cost of the management software license itself.

Because of the benefits, sales of KVM switches reached $600 million in 2002 and are expected to rise at a compound annual growth rate of 15 percent during the next three years, according to IDC. Vendors in the market include Altusen Technologies Inc., Avocent Corp., Belkin Corp., CCC Network Systems, Digital V6 Corp., Raritan Computer Inc. and Tenix Datagate, Inc.

Korzeniowski is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Mass., who specializes in technology issues. He can be reached at paulkorzen@aol.com.

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How it works

The original keyboard, video and mouse switch products relied on analog signaling — the same technique used in public switched telephone network connections — to move information from one central console to a series of servers. This option worked well in a central data center where servers are usually located close to one another.

Recently, suppliers have begun adding digital capabilities and extending the connections from several feet to virtually unlimited distances using a TCP/IP dial-up link, so technicians can examine servers remotely.

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