A New Role For Laptops In The Data Center

Here's an unusual device that no data center administrator or field technician will want to leave home without. It's called the KVM Console to USB 2.0 Portable Laptop Crash Cart Adapter, and it was developed by connectivity products supplier StarTech. The CRN Test Center applauds StarTech, long product name aside, for thinking outside the box, not only for this innovative product (which we'll heretofore refer to as the Crash Cart Adapter), but for submitting it in the CRN Tech Innovator awards for consideration as a Server. It earned an honorable mention in the category.

About the size of an iPhone with cables hanging off, this ingenious device attaches to USB and VGA ports of any computer and magically combines them into signals readable through the USB port of any laptop running Linux, Mac OS X or Windows. Once connected, three LEDs blink their dedicated messages regarding the server's keyboard/mouse and VGA, and the user console's link and activity status. Language on the Crash Cart Adapter and its manual is geared toward its use for data center servers, but it works just as well with USB and VGA ports of any computer.

After launching the included utility, the first instruction to appear is one to plug the Crash Cart Adapter itself into the console machine. Plugging into a USB 1.1 port will prompt a warning about slow video speed. Once connected, the Crash Cart immediately downloads firmware appropriate for the console's operating system platform, which in our case was Mac OS X, then prompts for a video connection. Once made, the target machine's video appears in an auto-scaling window on the crash cart laptop. When moving the laptop mouse over the remote screen, the control automatically switches over to the remote machine. The software settings allow mouse behavior to be modified or disabled.

A toolbar across the top of the window provides dedicated functions for picture control, scaling and other video settings, as well as snapshots, a window/full-screen toggle and soft function keyboard. There's even a key for sending CTRL-ALT-DEL, the icon for which is wryly explained as a "3-finger salute."

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At the CRN XChange Tech Innovators Conference in Las Vegas last November, John Arnett, senior product manager at StarTech and inventor of the Crash Cart Adapter, told me how the idea arose. "One of our IT guys told me how tired he was of having to drag a cart with a monitor, mouse and keyboard into the server room every time something crashed, and there's never anywhere to plug anything in," he said.

According to Arnett, the rhetorical question that ultimately arose was, "Why can't all this be done on a laptop?" Answer: because no such device existed. "So I designed one," he said.

After about a year, the StarTech Crash Cart Adapter became available, and at the time was unique. A similar product has emerged, Arnett noted, "But that one requires its own power cord." StarTech's, on the other hand, gets its power from the server by default, saving battery time on the console laptop. But if not enough power is available, it automatically switches its power intake to the console laptop. "Sometimes a crashing server will cut voltage to the USB ports, so we threw that feature in," he added. The feature worked perfectly in our tests.

Available direct or through high-tech distributors, the KVM Console to USB 2.0 Portable Laptop Crash Cart Adapter lists for $469, and includes a nice long (six-foot) USB cable for the host-to-target connection, a USB-to-PS/2 adapter, as well as drivers and user manual on CD or USB stick. Console software runs on Fedora and Ubuntu Linux, Mac OS X 10.5 (tested) or 10.6, and Windows. No software or drivers are required for the target. The CRN Test Center recommends StarTech's Crash Cart Adapter for any company with a data center or with technicians servicing computers in the field.