ServSwitch DKM (ACX0816)

GCN LAB REVIEW

Switch keeps all classroom computers on the same page

ServSwitch DKM enables classroom network administratrors to manage different user groups, applications on the same set of computers

In a typical classroom that teaches computer-related disciplines, you will find rows of desks, each of which contains a single desktop computer system. This may be fine if every class in that room uses the same software, but as anyone who has been a network administrator of a classroom environment knows, that situation is very rare.

All too often, one class will need computers for one application; then another class may need to run a program that demands way too much hard-drive space or computing resources, or might even be in a different operating system. This would require disk partitioning, which isn’t always easy to pull off, or hot-swappable drives, which would require an administrator to go in and change out the drives between classes.

A keyboard-mouse-video (KVM) switch would allow different classrooms to use different computers. Unfortunately, the most classic model of KVM switch is connected to nearby computers, since video and USB signals can’t go for extended distances without data or power losses. Moreover, a typical switch has no innate security: Any student would have access to computers meant for another class.

Enter the ServSwitch DKM from Black Box Network Services, a 2U rack-mountable appliance that serves connections between computers and remote consoles.


ServSwitch DKM (ACX0816) and Single DVI CATx KVM Extender Kits (ACS4001A-R2)

Pros: Flexible control over console-computer connections.
Cons: Steep learning curve for the admin interface.
Performance: A
Ease of Use: C+
Features: A-
Value: B
Price: $10,650 for Switch, $650 per Extender Kit

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To use it, you must also have one or more Extender Kits, each one of which has a device that connects to a computer and another that hooks up to the display and input devices.

The ones we looked at had DVI and USB ports, and RJ45 ports for connecting to the appliance via CAT-5 or CAT-6 Ethernet cables. The ServSwitch DKM model we tested had enough ports to connect up to eight consoles and 16 computers. And we had two pairs of Extender Kits.

We found the setup for the ServSwitch DKM a bit more complicated than your average network appliance. Connecting the local and remote devices in the Extender Kits was easy enough, as was connecting those to the ServSwitch appliance. However, once we were able to sign in to the admin interface, either through one of the consoles or another computer connected to the appliance, we found that life was not so easy.

The interface looks like it is mouse-driven and DOS-based, with cursor blocks and the like. It is not immediately clear what needs to be done to set up console-computer access to meet one’s needs, but it can be worked out eventually. They do have tech support that can help you through these early steps if necessary.

Once we figured out how to do it, we could set up the connections any which way we liked. We could have a specific console connected only to a certain computer at all times, an option that would be best for information kiosks and the like. Alternatively, we could create log-in accounts that would have access to a particular computer no matter on which console the user was located.

This would be the ideal classroom setup, as students of different classes would only have access to the computer assigned to them. We could even set it so that, even if one console is fully connected to a computer, other consoles could have video-only connections to the same computer at the same time. This would be great for teaching demonstrations, especially when a projector isn’t available in the room. As hard to interpret as this interface is, its power and flexibility are worth the effort. You can set it up for almost any educational environment.

The next version of this appliance is supposed to have a better, more visually intuitive, Web-based admin interface. If this is true, then it will remove the only major weak spot of this product.

One of the best parts about this system is that, since it deals exclusively with video and input signals, it should be possible to have computers using different operating systems connected to the same ServSwitch appliance. This would help ease the burden that is always put on classroom scheduling, as with a traditional setup in which certain classes could be taught in certain rooms, as in the “Mac room” or the “Windows room” for example.

Black Box has set the retail price of the ServSwitch DKM ACX0816 appliance at $10,650. Although this is higher than we would have liked, it is still a decent price for what it does. The Single DVI CATx KVM Extender Kits (ACS4001A-R2) sell for $650 for a pair consisting of one local and one remote unit. Right now this is the only way that these devices are sold, which we found odd, since the ServSwitch appliance we tested had twice as many computer ports as console ports, which would mean a lot of leftover remote units. We have been told that they will be pricing them out individually soon.

The ServeSwitch DKm from Black Box would be a good solution for any school environment and would be especially handy where the number or size of classrooms is limited.

Black Box Network Services, www.blackbox.com

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