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Buyer's Guide: KVM over IP Switches

Using a KVM over IP switch, one person can easily manage systems in several locations.

Executive Summary:
KVM over IP switches expand what one person can do, which is important in the current economic climate. A wide variety of these products are available, so make sure to take factors such as security, performance, and bandwidth usage into account.

The KVM over IP switch is probably one of the most fundamental components in your enterprise network infrastructure, and it's clear how the functionality can improve your day-to-day efficiency: It gives you in-band or out-of-band access to system keyboard, video, and mouse (KVM) functions, from any location at any time. In our July 2007 issue, we presented a "KVM over IP Switches" buyer's guide that showcased the products of nine major vendors in the field. Now, nearly two years later, we've decided to revisit the market by sharing some new offerings from favorite vendors and introducing you to some newcomers. Download the table in Excel format

What KVM over IP Brings You
Particularly if you head up a sprawling IT environment, you face the challenge of overcoming geographic barriers in your day-to-day network management; you need to react to problems on far-reaching systems as quickly as possible. Or if—in the clutches of our current economy—you're all alone, performing solo IT administration at a financially strapped small-to-midsized business or branch office, you need to increase productivity despite your lack of resources. A KVM over IP switch lets you maintain and manage geographically diverse devices, better manage systems to deliver key business services, and reduce total cost of ownership. KVM over IP switches give you BIOS-level control of connected servers and other network devices straight from any location: From a central interface, you can securely manage your entire IT infrastructure—including branches and remote data centers—as if you were administering them locally. A good KVM switch gives you complete access to authentication, event alerts, and user log files. Some KVM solutions even let you manage all your servers and devices when the network has failed and remote-access software isn't functioning.

Purchase Factors
KVM over IP switches can differ substantially in their breadth of functionality. To avoid wasting valuable resources or even compromising your business's security, you need to consider carefully the options you need for your unique environment. For example, the solution you choose needs to be able to support every OS platform and network device in your environment. Most of the solutions in Web Table 1 support a broad range of platforms. You might not have some of these platforms in your local environment, but don't forget that your network probably knows no boundaries; you must also consider remote users' laptops and mobile devices.

How many ports do you want the switch to have? As your company inevitably grows following this downturn, you'll need it to handle more than it needs to handle now. Switches differ wildly in the number of computers that can connect to it, and in enterprise scenarios, you can daisy-chain switches to cover greater numbers of connections. How does the switch handle video? What's the maximum video resolution? For bandwidth conservation, check to see what type of video compression the switch offers. Another feature you might find useful is sound capability. What about the switch's form factor (is it rack mountable?), the type of cables you'll need for server connections, the maximum number of simultaneous sessions, and the maximum distance the switch allows between the switch and servers? And what kind of failover functionality does the switch provide? Reliable access to critical resources is a key feature of a KVM over IP platform.

Some switches offer proprietary viewer software for communicating with the KVM switch, whereas others rely on a web browser to perform the same function. If you prefer limited user access to the switch, client software might be best. But see if you can get a handle on usability and performance; entry-level products might offer relatively weak security and reliability. If you need to give administrators access regardless of location, go with the browser-based interface.

Speaking of security, a major byproduct of the KVM over IP switch's inherent centralization is tighter control of your widespread resources, but the various solutions available today take differing approaches to security. Determine whether the switch takes advantage of your existing authentication technologies or uses its own methods. Does the switch encrypt all signals between itself and managed devices? A great deterrent to intrusion is an encrypted administrative GUI.

Choose Wisely
Table 1 shows a listing of the vendors who chose to participate in this year's roundup of KVM over IP switches. You might consider KVM technology basic or elemental, but it's one area where you don't want to choose unwisely.

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