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Hardware Today: The Basics of KVM

By Carl Weinschenk (Send Email)
Posted Sep 8, 2003


The fast-paced changes in IT create scenarios in which technology and business needs coalesce to thrust front and center a technology that previously was in the background. Keyboard, video and mouse (KVM) is one such technology. Like grid computing and its variants, KVM is aimed at creating efficiencies and rationalizing both the overall growth and gradual decentralization of the modern IT infrastructure.

KVM switches have been steadily moving from the background to the foreground of the data center. Carl Weinschenk explains the reasons for this as he steps through the basics of KVM.

KVM switches, which have actually been around without much glory for years, enable users to need only one keyboard, mouse, and monitor to simultaneously run multiple PCs or servers. Formerly, KVM was limited to the length of a cable. The advent of IP networking has given the category a tremendous shot in the arm.

Executives cite two other drivers of KVM's growing popularity.

The power and space necessary to accommodate all the keyboards, monitors, and mice has risen as data centers have expanded. Of course, each element in and of itself is minor. But multiply it over dozens or even hundreds of units, and the cumulative expenditures -- especially space -- is significant. KVM also cuts down on cabling and the organizational headaches it produces.

"The original problem that KVM was solving was that if you had 500 servers in a data center, you have a situation in which you have 500 keyboards, 500 monitors, and 500 mice," says Chris Lanfear the group manager of global assessment for Venture Development Corp., which is preparing a report on the KVM market. "Now you don't need all that dedicated space. [The gear also] generates a lot of heat, so you don't have to have as much air conditioning. You don't use as much power."

The Internet is the other major driver of KVM adoption. The marriage to IP has given KVM new life during the past decade by enabling operations over very long distances. It is possible for a company in Los Angeles to operate a data center in Singapore. It is also possible to run "lights out" (i.e., unmanned) data centers from anywhere. In addition to being able to handle problems far more adeptly, KVM over IP facilitates a far greater level of monitoring and preventive maintenance.

Savvy use of KVM technology can create great efficiencies for IT departments. Imagine a remote location of a business -- a bank, a restaurant, or an auto parts outlet -- that has several servers on the premises. Clearly, it is unlikely that anybody on-site would have the training or time to handle an IT problem. The traditional options are to dispatch an IT person, hire local expertise, or compel the most technically adept person at the branch to follow IT directions over the phone. None of these options is ideal, of course. A KVM solution enables an IT worker to handle the problem as if he or she was there.

Although KVM doesn't appear to be capturing the spotlight other technologies do -- perhaps glitz counts for something, even in IT -- it is garnering attention. The market is in the middle of a significant growth stage, according to VDC. It says says KVM is currently experiencing a compound annual growth rate of 16 percent that began in 2001 and should last through 2006. In 2001, the U.S. market was $381.5 million. By the end of the study period, the market is expected to top out at $852 million.

Today, the leading KVM companies are Avocent, Belkin, Raritan, Rose, and CCC Network Systems.

KVM switches run the gamut from devices designed for home use to enterprise-level switches capable of running thousands of servers and PCs from a few stations. For that reason, IS departments looking to invest in KVM should have a clear idea of precisely how the devices will be used and what the migration path will be before determining what type of gear to purchase.

There are also a number of features of which enterprises should be aware. For example, some devices can toggle between client units using a "hot key," which can be handy if speed is vital. Buyers should also be concerned with the quality of the monitor that the controlling device will use. In-house KVM units are linked together using special cabling and PS/2 connectors.

Clearly the biggest concern is the security of KVM over IP. The very point of the endeavor -- facilitating remote control of servers and PC -- suggests huge security issues. If the system is set up to enable remote operations, it is by nature a risky affair. Enterprises should keep one vital point in mind: Do not skimp on security when implementing KVM over IP.

Carl Weinschenk writes a weekly server hardware series for ServerWatch.

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