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What is a KVM Switch?

And why you might want to use one

In the funky world of technology acronyms, KVM is an easy one to translate. It stands for Keyboard, Video, Mouse. Fortunately, using a KVW switch is just as simple as pronouncing its full name.

Usage examples

A KVM switch enables you to control from two to eight (and in the case of some high–end switches, 32 or more) CPUs or servers with ONE keyboard, ONE mouse, and ONE computer monitor.

Who would need to control multiple computers with one keyboard, mouse, and monitor? To begin with, KVM switches are an absolute necessity for network administrators who manage more than one server. Here's a quick look at potential applications:

Professional Can use a KVM switch to:
Network administrator Monitor and switch between servers from a single computer workstation — even a workstation outside of the server room.
Salesperson, or a road warrior stopping by the home office Work on a laptop using a desktop keyboard, computer monitor, and mouse.
Graphic artist Create designs on a PC and a Mac and switch between the two while using a single keyboard, monitor, and mouse.
Telecommuter Log onto one computer at home for work, and another for personal use, without needing two workspaces. Sample work layout: two CPU towers under a desk, and one keyboard, video, and mouse on top of the same desk.
Manufacturer or retailer Allow employees on a shop floor or loading dock to check pricing and inventory on a computer that is locked safely behind back–office doors.

What is it?

A KVM switch is a piece of hardware that works with PC, Macintosh, and Sun computing systems. It allows users to toggle between computers or servers at the press of a button or turn of a dial (depending on the particular switch design). The "switched" CPUs and servers don't need to have the same memory or processing power — and they don't even need to be from the same manufacturer.

Benefits

A KVM switch saves office or server room space, improves productivity (by decreasing the time workers spend switching between workstations), reduces energy costs (by reducing the number of monitors that are being used), and cuts down on hardware costs (since it reduces the number of monitors and peripherals).

Cables and range of operation

In addition to a KVM switch, you need cables. To make the purchase of cables easier, there are KVM cable kits that come with all the cabling you need to make one or more connections. Some of these kits have thick cables with three–headed attachments (one each for VGA and two PS/2 ports) so there's only one cable stretching between each CPU/server and the switch.

The required cables come in a variety of lengths. If your switch is going to be down the hall from the CPUs or servers you're using, you can buy a KVM extender cable. Extender cables can be several hundred feet long.

Many KVM switches have a plastic housing that gathers and consolidates the cables so they won't curl and spread all over the floor or desktop.

How to connect

KVM switches are typically equipped with from two to eight VGA ports (where computer monitors are connected) and from two to eight pairs of parallel ports (where mice and keyboards are connected). These ports correspond to identical ports on CPUs and servers.

A VGA cable (from the monitor you're using) and two PS/2 cables (one each for the mouse and keyboard you're using) must connect your keyboard, monitor, and mouse to the main port on the KVM switch.

The KVM switch must then connect to each CPU or server you'd like to access using an additional VGA cable and two PS/2 cables. The same cabling requirements are repeated for each CPU or server added to the switch.

Eventually, there will be wireless KVM switches that will allow you to achieve the same connections without cables.

Other ports

Many KVM switches also include USB ports (for printers, CD/DVD drives, and more) and audio ports for computer speakers and microphones. These additional ports allow you to access several peripherals or speakers from one workstation.

Security

Security is provided by the attached servers and CPUs. The only way other people could manipulate the servers and CPUs would be to sit down at a logged–on workstation that's connected to a KVM switch.

There are some high–end switches that can be set with a programmable password, though these switches must be plugged into a wall outlet.


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