Remote Control Hardware Options

FRAMINGHAM (03/27/2000) - Managing servers used to be a time-consuming and costly affair. Remote-control solutions made it easier to maintain the servers, but they brought up some new concerns. Software solutions are simple to install and are inexpensive, but they use precious server clock cycles by loading the server with another process to service. If this is unattractive to you, hardware-based products for remote control offer another option.

There are two types of hardware solutions for remotely managing your servers: a vendor-specific add-on card installed into the vendor 's server, or an external stand-alone box - basically a PC with an additional card for keyboard, video and mouse (KVM) connections that send and receive signals to and from the server being managed.

The proprietary cards pull power from the host server 's I/O bus or from an external power supply. The advantage here is that the card can be accessed even if the server operating system is down or the server loses power. The downside is that these cards typically can only manage the host server, not multiple servers.

The external server management products are scalable by connecting to a KVM switch. The devices can control the KVM switch to manage a machine connected to that switch. Another advantage to the external server management solution is the inherent vendor-independent nature of the products. This type of solution can manage any server with a standard PC mouse and keyboard with a VGA connection for video.

Vendor cards score higher

We evaluated four products, two in each category. The vendor-specific cards (Hewlett-Packard Co.'s TopTools card and Compaq Computer Corp.'s Remote Insight Lights-Out Edition) scored better than the external boxes (Cybex's Key-View II and Apex Emerge 2000 ). Because the internal remote control cards are connected to the PCI bus of the server, it affords them more resources to monitor and control than their external remote control counterparts. (Editor 's Note: Apex and Cybex recently announced plans to merge.)Two other vendor-specific cards, Dell 's Remote Access Card (DRAC) and IBM 's Wiseman remote access card, were invited to participate, but the vendors declined, as they were between product cycles.

In the final analysis, HP 's TopTools card won our Blue Ribbon Award for the best combination of features, ease of use and scalability.

About the products

The Compaq Remote Insight Board Lights-Out Edition is a PCI card loaded into a Compaq server. The card has a keyboard and mouse port that connect to the keyboard and mouse ports of the managed server. The board has an Ethernet port for connection to a network. A Web server runs on the card to allow access via a Web browser on a remote management console. The card is a stand-alone unit that can operate even when the server is powered down. There is an external power connection that is used in case the power to the server is interrupted.

The HP TopTools card is a PCI card loaded into an HP server. The card has an external power connection in case the server power is interrupted. It also has an Ethernet connection and a serial connection for use with a modem for out-of-band access. A Web server runs on the card to allow access from a remote management station running a Web browser.

Apex 's Emerge 2000 was shipped with an Apex Outlook 8-port KVM switch. The Emerge 2000 is an Acer PC with a special card that allows the box to be connected to the keyboard, video and mouse ports of a server or KVM switch box.

The Emerge 2000 also has an Ethernet port and modem. The Emerge runs Traveling Software 's LapLink software for remote control of the Emerge box. The Emerge also can control the Outlook KVM switch by selecting the active port.

The other external device, Cybex 's Key-View II, is a rack-mountable PC with a special card that connects to the keyboard, mouse and video ports of a server or KVM switch. Our Key-View II was shipped with a KVM switch that can connect to many servers. Remote console access into the Key-View II is made via Symantec 's pcAnywhere.

Features

Of the two proprietary card solutions, we were most impressed with the TopTools ' features. Access is provided by pcAnywhere for graphics control, and the card itself is used to control access to the text console. We liked the remote power-on and power-off capability, as well as the graceful operating system shutdown function provided by the card. This feature works well with Microsoft 's Windows NT, Windows 2000, Novell 's NetWare and The Santa Cruz Operation 's UnixWare.

The TopTools software on a management platform provides a centralized place to change the passwords of all TopTools cards in a network and can be integrated into management platforms to provide centralized administration and monitoring of the card.

We also liked the remote floppy feature, which allows the server to boot from a remote floppy disk instead of local floppy or hard drives. This lets you upgrade the server from floppy disks without having to physically touch the server. Other features we liked include environmental monitoring of the server and alerts and notification features for configurable server conditions.

Environmental monitoring includes items such as system voltages and temperature. With the card, these items can be monitored and administrators can be alerted without the server having to do the work through a management platform. Finally, we gave points for HP 's inclusion of a serial port for connection to an external modem.

Compaq 's Remote Insight Lights-Out Edition allows access through a Web server built into the card. All you need is a Web browser to access the management console. We liked that the card had power-on and power-off capabilities, but it didn 't have a graceful shutdown capability, other than those provided by the operating system.

The board can also intercept SNMP traps from the server, allowing it to send traps instead of the Insight Manager software on the server, thus relieving the server of this duty.

The administration features let you create users and passwords to control the access into the card, as well as limit the accessibility of various features by different users. Unlike the TopTools card, there is no centralized administration mechanism.

Further, there is no remote floppy capability, no environmental monitoring features and no modem interface. Compaq says the modem interface was left off to reduce the cost of the card, and the company recommends deploying a remote access server for modem access.

Unlike the previous two products, both the Cybex Key-View II and the Apex Emerge 2000 are server vendor-independent. While this is a definite plus, these solutions also lack some of the other features provided by the vendor-specific cards, including remote power control (although Cybex offers a remote power control unit that integrates with their KVM switching architecture), remote floppy capability and integration with other management tools. Additionally, there are no environmental monitoring capabilities, alert or notification features other than utilities that may be bundled with the server.

A unique feature of the Emerge product is the ability to have several servers ' displays open at once, although only an active screen in an active window is updated.

Ease of use

Connecting to the internal cards is relatively easy. To connect to the Compaq board, just open a browser on the client and type in the IP address of the board. A Java applet starts and gives the user a logon window. After authenticating, a Web page appears. The interface is simple to navigate and gives the user the ability to view the server desktop directly from the Web page. The time it takes the applet to redraw the screen is a little painful, but the convenience of having the graphical console built into the Web site outweighs the disadvantages.

We had some problems with the graphical console feature when switching between the remote console and other functions on the Remote Insight Board Web site.

This caused an Oout of memoryO error on our browser. It detracted from the experience, but the ability to get access to the server console remotely without any special client software (other than a browser) is definitely a plus.

HP 's TopTools card also has a built-in Web server. The remote graphical console is accessed through pcAnywhere. Unlike the Compaq card, there is no native graphical console. It does have a remote text-based console to view the Power On System Test (POST) operation when the server boots up. This is where hardware is detected and configured during the boot process. The ability to see the POST operation is important because there may be a boot problem that is the cause of a server problem. When the server operating system brings up a graphical user interface (GUI), the remote text console no longer works. The user must use pcAnywhere to continue controlling the server through the graphical console. The Web pages for the TopTools card are easy to navigate, and the links are self-explanatory and easy to read. In addition, the TopTools ' remote floppy feature uses TFTP to deliver the remote floppy image, which worked without a hitch.

Of the two external devices, the Cybex Key-View II was easier to work with. The remote access graphics and performance worked well, and we had no user interface problems. The application was a little confusing to navigate at first, but after learning the process of connecting to a remote server through the KVM switch, the interface was relatively easy to use. Cybex provides a mechanism to define key macros for passing keystrokes to the managed server.

The Emerge 2000 is actually a small Acer PC running Windows NT 4.0. At bootup, it starts the application called Emerge. This is the main GUI for the remote server access functionality. The application opens with a wizard to let the Emerge application know how KVM switches are connected to it. From here the user can bring up windows that display the remote server 's desktop.

In the remote desktop window, the mouse pointer changes to a cross-hair cursor to differentiate between the local and remote mouse cursors. The remote mouse cursor lags behind the local cursor, due to the digitizing delay of the KVM card in the Emerge box. There is an annoying procedure to make the local mouse cursor and remote mouse cursor synchronize. The remote mouse speed must be set to the lowest setting, then you have to hit F9 or else the cursors won 't synchronize. This is further complicated because the mouse speed setting can change depending on the user who logs on to the server.

While Emerge has a set of predefined key combinations mapped to function keys to pass Windows key combinations to the remote server (such as CTRL-ALT-Delete), there is no mechanism for creating your own key combinations or mappings. Also, to remotely connect to the Emerge 2000, the LapLink remote access software must be up and configured on the client machine. While this is easy to do, the graphics quality and performance degrades over the LapLink connection.

Setup and configuration

Compaq 's Remote Insight Lights-Out Edition was the easiest to set up and configure. We installed the board in a ProLiant 1850R server that Compaq shipped to us. The system partition may need to be upgraded for the server to recognize the card, otherwise the card sets up easily through a configuration utility during bootup. After the card is configured and reset, it can be accessed via the Web browser.

HP 's TopTools card is also set up during the server hardware boot sequence.

After assigning the card an IP address, a Web browser can access it.

Integration into the TopTools software on a management platform then allows multiple TopTools cards to be administered from one location.

For the external boxes, setup is a bit more difficult. The Emerge comes with a bootable CD that contains the hard disk image for the Emerge hardware. If the Emerge box software needs to be reinstalled, simply boot the CD and the hard disk gets a fresh copy of the operating system and Emerge software. In addition, the Emerge application needs to know the topology of the KVM switch architecture, which is done through a wizard.

Because of the flexibility of the Cybex KVM switch architecture, setup can be complicated. The Cybex system relies on the Ospan of controlO concept, in which users can only access various ports on various KVM switches. However, the setup of the Key-View II and the KVM switching system was relatively simple to configure. Once the connection between the Key-View II and the switch architecture is made, pcAnywhere needs to set up the remote control of the Key-View II box.

Scalability

The TopTools card wins because it enables group management of the card and it does the best job of integrating into management software. The group management allows centralized management of all the cards. The only downside to TopTools is the one-to-one relationship between cards and servers.

Compaq 's Remote Insight Lights-Out Edition does integrate with the Compaq Insight Manager, which helps with management scalability, but there is no centralized administration of the cards, so the administration doesn 't scale.

For the external devices, Cybex 's Key-View II has a rich and flexible KVM switching architecture that scales to support a large server installation. In addition, the Key-View II can import the KVM switching configuration to maintain user rights for access. However, there isn 't an integration feature to let the Key-View II operate with server management systems.

The Emerge 2000 could connect to many servers with the Outlook KVM switch.

Because there is no switch user configuration or centralized server management that integrates with the Emerge 2000, there is no management scalability.

Security

The TopTools card and the Compaq Remote Lights-Out Edition scored well for security. The TopTools card has good physical security because it has a built-in modem. Password security is good, as is authentication. But remember, there 's only one type of user with the HP card (all users have the same rights as opposed to the Compaq card and Cybex box allowing for configurable user rights). Because it only has an Ethernet connection, the Remote Insight Lights-Out Edition can be sniffed by hackers monitoring the traffic going to and from the card. But it does have good password encryption and reasonable authentication and access control mechanisms.

On the external side, Cybex 's onboard modem gives it good physical security.

It has good password security, and the authentication and access control was the best of the group. It includes a caller ID card that connects to a phone line and the modem, to allow the administrator to only receive calls from a specified location.

Apex 's Emerge also has good physical security, as you can connect remotely by modem. PcAnywhere has good password encryption, but authentication and access control is left to the underlying operating system.

Price per server

The Emerge 2000 and the Apex switch offer the most economical solution overall, However, if you are looking to remotely control only a couple of servers and you have HP and Compaq servers, the HP and Compaq cards are the most inexpensive. As the number of servers increase, the economics change. The Apex Emerge 2000 is the most inexpensive solution with more than three servers. The HP TopTools card is the most expensive with more than six servers. The Compaq and the Apex products hit the middle of the road in price per server with more than seven servers.

Documentation

HP 's documentation came out on top. The card comes with an easy-to-read setup guide showing how to install, configure and access the card. The Web interface has links to HP 's Web site for extensive documentation on the card. Compaq 's documents were easy to follow, except for the complicated driver installation procedure. Apex 's documentation is all on a CD, but it is still well-written and easy to read. Cybex 's manuals were easy to follow, but they simply describe the functions. There were no procedural explanations for setting up the system.

As mentioned above, these products fall into two categories -- external vendor-independent products and internal vendor-specific products. If you have an HP or Compaq shop, the choice is clear -- buy their remote access cards for remote server access.

If you have a multivendor server environment, the types of features and your budget would define which product to purchase. If you need high security and flexibility in your KVM switching architecture, the Cybex Key-View II would be the product of choice. If price is your major consideration, the Emerge 2000 from Apex may be the best choice.

Bass is the technical director at Centennial Networking Labs (CNL) at North Carolina State Universityin Raleigh. CNL focuses on performance, capacity and features of networking and server technologies and equipment. He can be reached at john_bass@ ncsu.edu.

CNL is also a member of the Network World Test Alliance, a cooperative of the premier reviewers in the network industry. For more Test Alliance information, including what it takes to become a member, go to www.nwfusion.com/ alliance.

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