Avocent hits home with new KVM

By Joel Snyder
Network World, 11/17/03

Original Article on Network World Web Site

Analog KVM systems are alive and kicking. Although their IP-based brethren get more press and stress, some network managers prefer analog because it offers higher-quality video, network independence and security, plus the ability to connect keyboard and mouse from a bare screen. Avocent's latest offering, the AMX series, which started shipping in June, refines and simplifies the analog keyboard, video, mouse.

We tested the AMX5010, a 3.5-inch high, 64-system/16-user device, in our lab in Tucson, Ariz., and hooked up 40 systems, including Windows and Macintosh, Alphas running OpenVMS, and scalable processor architectures (SPARC) with Solaris.

Avocent has simplified installation over previous analog models by removing bulky cables and moving to standard Category 5 Ethernet for the connection between devices and the AMX5010 central switch.

This is a trend other analog switch makers are starting to follow. Instead of running a thick bundle of up to seven cables between a switch and a device, the AMX system connects to server interface modules (called dongles) which adapt from Cat 5 to KVM connectors. Avocent sells dongles that support PS/2, USB or Sun keyboard/mouse connections, with video resolutions up to 1,600 by 1,200 dots per inch (dpi). A serial dongle also is available to connect to serial devices such as routers and switches.

The new dongles have another benefit: their own unique IDs, which means that you don't have to care how you plug things into the AMX central switch. Any port will do because the system attached to the dongle is identified by dongle ID, not port number.

We immediately assigned user-friendly labels (like "Joel's Mac") using the very intuitive GUI, and that was it. The system was ready to use. If you pick up a dongle and move it to another port, it keeps the same name.

Although the wiring was easy, we found that the AMX is pretty picky about the quality of cables and patch panels. They need to be high-quality to work well.

   AMX5010 central switch
Cost: $11,495 as tested.

Pros: Easy to install, leverages existing cabling, has intuitive GUI, provides excellent video quality.
Cons: Older operating systems and hardware not well supported.

Programming the AMX can be done using the AMWorks Java-based GUI over an Ethernet connection, but for our one-switch installation, it wasn't necessary. A larger installation, which chains multiple AMX switches, would find that useful. Instead, we programmed by using one of our four user workstations. Avocent's GUI is simple and didn't require training - which is good because the manual was missing some vital information needed to complete our installation.

Fortunately, tech support answered our questions quickly. Users also are connected using Cat 5, by plugging a keyboard, monitor and mouse into an AMX5100 user station, which is a thin box, about 10-by-10-by-1 inch.

Using the AMX is like being directly attached. With newer systems and graphics cards, video was perfect out of the box up to the 1,600-by-1,200-dpi resolution. Older devices, such as our Mac G4, required more fine-tuning to achieve a good picture. Once we were done, though, the AMX5010 was just like being there.