Is your server room cluttered with separate keyboards, monitors, and mouse devices for administering each of your systems? Is your company's computing equipment spread haphazardly around the building or across geographic distances? To wield administrative power over mission-critical systems from a single console, many IT departments use KVM switching systems, which let you monitor and manage connected devices as if you were sitting at the specific machine. The features of KVM switches vary, but the underlying technology and fundamental operation remain consistent: You share one locally connected keyboard, mouse, and monitor among as many systems as the switch will support.

Traditional hardwired KVM solutions, however, are limited by one key factor: They don't give you KVM access wherever you need it—you must have physical access to the switch. Clearly, the best solution for the IT pro is the KVM over IP switch, which expands your administrative reach over distributed systems, reduces costs and downtime, and improves security and reliability. In the Buyer's Guide table, you'll find a wide selection of offerings from today's major players in the KVM over IP arena.

Digital KVM
IP-based KVM functionality offers obvious advantages over standard analog KVM switches. Primarily, IP-based connectivity removes distance limitations, letting you control your systems and other devices from anywhere in the world. Also, you have the freedom to add or modify accounts easily, simply because devices are identified by IP address. Finally, you don't need to buy new cables because the system leverages your in-place infrastructure.

A digital KVM over IP switch digitizes the target computer's analog video output and sends it across the IP network to your screen. As you perform your administration duties, the switch sends the data back to the target device. Some switches offer client-side software for communicating with the KVM switch, whereas others make do with an Internet browser to perform the same function. You need to weigh the pros and cons of both approaches. If you prefer limited user access to the switch, client software is better for your environment. But if you need to give administrators access regardless of location, a browser-based interface is the best bet. It's hard to deny the convenience of being able to wield BIOS-level control over any number of servers or devices, all through your browser.

What to Look For
When you're shopping the market for a KVM over IP solution, think about the number and types of servers that you want to control with the switch. Vendors offer varying degrees of heterogeneous support. Does the switch support multiplatform environments and differing brands of hardware in the server room? You also must decide how many ports you want the switch to have. Will you need it to handle more as your company grows? Is the switch scalable?

How does the switch handle video? What's the maximum video resolution? Check to see what type of video compression the switch offers for conserving bandwidth. Another feature you might find useful is sound capability.

You also need to consider the form factor of the hardware (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.

If you plan to make your KVM switch accessible over the Internet—or even over your organization's network— security is obviously a concern. While shopping, look for switch support for security standards such as DES, Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), and public key certificates, and make sure that you can apply multiple levels of security and encryption to your KVM connections. You don't want to inadvertently let intruders access your enterprise's critical systems. You might want to ensure that you can integrate the product's security with your Windows security model. The security model further prevents malicious users from gaining unauthorized access.

Streamline Your Data Center
KVM over IP switches can significantly reduce the clutter of your workspace. Particularly if you have a large number of critical systems, you'll find that KVM over IP will not only improve your data center cosmetically but will improve its—and your—efficiency.