In our February 2006 issue, we gave you a "KVM over IP Switches" buyer's guide (InstantDoc ID 48825) that showcased the products of nine major vendors in the field. Now, nearly a year and a half later, we'd like to revisit the market—share some new offerings from favorite vendors as well as introduce you to some newcomers. KVM over IP technology is one of the most fundamental components in your network infrastructure, so we like to keep our finger on the pulse of the industry and get you the information you need to make the right buying decisions.

The Benefits
It's easy to see how KVM over IP functionality can improve IT efficiency: KVM over IP switches give you out-of-band access to system keyboard, video, mouse (KVM) functions, from any location at any time. You're probably constantly challenged to get past geographic barriers in your day-today network management, needing to find quicker ways to react to problems on far-reaching systems. Or perhaps you're one of only a few IT administrators at a small-to-midsized business (SMB) or branch office, and you need to increase productivity despite your lack of resources. A KVM over IP switch lets you easily maintain and manage geographically diverse devices, better manage systems to reliably deliver key business services, and drastically reduce total cost of ownership (TCO).

KVM over IP switches give you access to and BIOS-level control of connected servers and other network devices straight from your desk or any other location: You can securely manage your entire IT infrastructure—including branches and remote data centers—through the use of one central interface, as if you were administering them locally. You can even provide external modem support if the network fails and you can no longer use remote-access software.

Making the Choice
How do you choose the right KVM over IP switch for your environment? The switches from various vendors can differ substantially. If you choose the wrong switch, you'll waste valuable resources and possibly even compromise your business's security. To choose correctly, you need to keep in mind some key factors.

The solution you choose needs to be able to support every OS platform and network device contained in your environment. As Web Table 1 shows, most of these vendors' solutions support a broad range of platforms, including Linux, Sun, and Macintosh. 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.

You need to 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. And what kind of fail-over functionality does the switch provide? Effortless, reliable access to critical resources is a key feature of a KVM over IP platform.

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.

Finally, keep in mind the importance 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.

Start Here
Your KVM over IP switch is one of the most important pieces of your IT architecture, giving you anytime, anywhere, out-of-band, BIOS-level access to your widespread network's most basic functions. Of all your IT resources, KVM technology is one area where you don't want to choose unwisely.