IT and data center professionals are often plagued by difficult and complicated technical issues and problems that they must resolve. Most systems administrators or data center professionals have probably had extensive experience with the setup and maintenance of servers, and in particular, “headless" servers; servers which have no graphical interface (no keyboard, mouse or monitor etc. )
To deal with the problem of headless servers, IT professionals in the past would typically turn to KVM switches that were either rack mounted or standalone, or intricate software. Software poses a series of technical challenges that makes it difficult to implement, including operating system and platform compatibility issues as well as potential issues with security settings.
In lieu of KVM switches and software, IT professionals have another alternative: the “crash cart". This isn't a terrible ER episode; the crash cart typically consists of a monitor, keyboard and mouse that can be attached to the server. The crash cart faces clear limitations in terms of logistics, representing a solution which is inconvenient and difficult to lug around.
However, administrators have one final alternative: KVM2USB by Epiphan Systems , a solution which addresses the limitations of all of the other options by providing a system which is convenient and easy to use. KVM2USB's advantage is derived from its nature as a portable solution that allows the user to transform any laptop into a KVM console while avoiding operating systems and software compatibility issues.
KVM2USB also represents a dynamic solution with a strong manufacturer behind it. Epiphan is the manufacturer of KVM2USB, and has released a series of updates which have transformed KVM2USB with better hardware and firmware.
KVM2USB has only gotten better with age, with significant improvements in overall design, usability and quality. This review aims to highlight both the positive and potential negative aspects of KVM2USB's newer and older versions.
Upgraded Physical Appearance
KVM2USB has undergone watershed changes in terms of appearance. Although this is certainly not the primary motivating factor for most IT professionals, the new KVM2USB sports a revised and sleek look, while holding onto the small dimensions of the original. The KVM2USB is so small, that it is only about the size of a credit card in terms of width and length, making it easily portable, although it is also significantly easier to lose than a traditional crash cart. Unlike many new products where quality diminishes over time, the KVM2USB has actually improved in terms of physical appearance, while the materials that have gone into the device also appear to have improved.
Unlocking the KVM2USB
The KVM2USB is a powerful tool in terms of server management and maintenance because of the way that it works. The device, although small, allows the user to plug in the VGA video, mouse and keyboard inputs from the server into the KVM2USB. A USB output from the KVM2USB easily connects with a USB port on a laptop or notebook computer, which becomes an effective visual and graphical interface with the server.
In order to use KVM2USB, a laptop need only be configured with a minimal set of drivers. After installation of the application and drivers, KVM2USB quickly recognizes the inputs that are plugged into it, enabling a laptop to quickly and easily become an interface for any headless server. This has advantages from the server side, requiring no additional software to be installed on the server itself, functionally preventing software or operating systems conflicts. In addition, servers that run Linux can be emulated on Windows machines or laptops running other proprietary software seamlessly, without compatibility issues.
Because the interface runs as an application on a laptop, it allows for quick minimization, which enables users to pull up and use other applications simultaneously. This can be particularly useful when an administrator or IT specialist must review manuals or other documentation as they perform server maintenance.
Upgraded Display Capabilities
While the original KVM2USB offered support for 2048 X 1536 resolution, the quality left something to be desired. While this would suffice in most instances, the original experienced a number of issues making it particularly difficult to read fine print, since the original model used interlacing rather than progressive scan.
Fortunately, Epiphan has made some significant improvements in this regard with the new KVM2USB. Epiphan has improved the overall quality of the picture at all resolutions by switching to a progressive scan, which eliminates much of the previous concern over interlacing artifact.
The older KVM2USB model was also somewhat limited by a lower capture rate (10 frames per second at 1280 X 1024 resolution). Fortunately, Epiphan has taken pains to address this issue as well by increasing capture rate by a factor of three to thirty frames per second. This capture rate should be sufficient for most applications, and is a marked improvement over both the previous model and others on the market.
The upgraded and retooled KVM2USB also features 16 MB on-board buffer memory, that, when coupled with Epiphan's advanced image compression technology helps to render stunning images with quality that one would typically not expect from a USB device.
A Superior KVM Device
While KVM2USB has a demonstrated superior VGA capture capabilities, it also performs well as a KVM device. Although the initial KVM2USB had a number of bugs to be worked out, including lag time while logging into the BIOS of some servers, the new KVM2USB experiences no observable lag, with the monitor, mouse and keyboard operating seamlessly and in real time, with an almost instant boot up.
The second KVM2USB has also solved a somewhat annoying problem present in the original. When attempting to use a PS/2 to USB conversion cable, the original was not able to effectively emulate the keyboard or mouse. Epiphan has eliminated this frustration by including the conversion cable and working to eliminate any technical issues which prevented successful emulation in the past.
This KVM device is also desirable for its ability to work across many platforms, having been successfully used by this user on MacBook as well as Windows based laptops, since Epiphan does an excellent job of making both software versions (and a Linux version) along with other variants available.
A Better Device, Same Price
With the significant improvements that have occurred in the new KVM2USB it would stand to reason that pricing would necessarily increase. Fortunately, this is the not the case, as Epiphan has been able to successful rein in and control any increases in cost. The current version sells for the same price as the original - just under $400 if purchased directly from Epiphan Systems.
While $400 may seem exorbitant at first glance, KVM2USB delivers substantial value that far exceeds the purchase price. VGA frame grabbers with similar specs frequently cost twice as much as the KVM2USB.
The value that KVM2USB delivers is also substantial in terms of its overall ease of use and convenience, outweighing the lower price of less useable crash carts that also have fewer features.
While there are certainly other solutions such as KVM-over-IP switches which should be considered by responsible administrators, the value that KVM2USB delivers on pricing makes it a superior buy. In particular, the ability of KVM2USB to be used with such a minimal level of configuration adds to this value proposition.
A Strong Buy
Overall, the combined factors of the KVM2USB's usability, portability and ability to function across platforms make it a strong buy. KVM2USB from Epiphan offers distinct advantages over the traditional crash cart approach, and provides a significant cost savings over more expensive options such as KVM-over-IP which are not necessarily viable options for all businesses due to their cost. KVM2USB's features also make it an ideal tool to be used particularly in the setup of new servers. KVM2USB also enjoys a distinct advantage in its ability to be used virtually “out of the box" with little setup or installation.
These factors combined with KVM2USB's relatively low price point given its functionality make for a device which is superior to others on the market. The KVM2USB represents a KVM device that is well worth the price!
Glen Eastman, technology and software consulting, MTI Technologies, Canada.