Remote Desktop Protocol as an alternative to a KVM switch

KVM cables can only be so long. Wireless KVM is expensive. In certain situations, Remote Desktop Protocol is a viable alternative to a KVM switch.

I've been using Remote Desktop Protocol connections as an alternative to KVM switches for about a month.

The process of switching from one machine to another isn't quite as fast as it would be with a KVM switch. Aside from that, the overall experience is much the same. A gigabit network connection provides lag-free sessions, and it's easy to forget that you are accessing servers remotely.

Because I write about such a broad spectrum of Windows-related topics, I have a couple of dozen computers in my house used in testing. The problem is that they take up a lot of space, and give off an extraordinary amount of heat.

To work around this, I placed my primary workstation in one room and put all my other computers in another room, so I wouldn't be bothered by the noise and heat they give off. Then I attached all the computers to one of three KVM switches and ran a KVM cable from each of the three switches through the wall to three sets of keyboards, monitors and mice in my office. This allowed me to interact with all my computers without having to be in the same room as them.

This solution worked well until I moved. In my new home, the room I chose to house all my computers was not on the opposite side of the wall from my office. Because a crawlspace ran behind both rooms, I decided that running KVM cables between the two rooms wouldn't be a problem. But when I measured the distance, I realized that the KVM cables would need to be about 70 feet long.

Long KVM cable runs possible but not always practical

 

I shopped around and found some 35-foot cables that had the same level of shielding as the 50-foot cables. Taking a chance, I purchased six of the 35-foot cables so I could use them for three 70-foot runs.

However, a 70-foot KVM cable is just not practical. The heavily shielded cables delivered a flawless video signal, and mouse inputs worked reasonably well (although not perfect). However, I could not get a keyboard to work at that distance. After doing some more research, I learned that the reason why the keyboards were not working was because of attenuation. In case you are not familiar with attenuation, it is a concept in physics which states that as distance increases, energy decreases as a result of absorption, scattering, etc. To put it simply, there just was not enough electricity left to power the keyboard.

Since KVM cables were obviously not going to work, I looked into wireless KVM. Wireless KVM tends to be pricey, but it initially seemed to be an ideal solution. But after doing some research, I discovered there was a risk of the signals from each KVM switch interfering with each other and with my wireless network.

Remote Desktop Protocol as an alternative to KVM

Ultimately, I decided to use the Remote Desktop Protocol as an alternative to KVM switches. I used my existing KVM switches to link each computer to one of three sets of keyboards, mice and monitors as originally planned. The difference was that I placed the keyboards, mice and monitors in the same room as the computers that the KVM switches were attached to. The reason why I did that was because if a computer were to fail, then I would not be able to use the Remote Desktop Protocol to remotely access it. In such a situation, I would have to rely on a directly attached keyboard, mouse and monitor.

Once I had a keyboard, mouse and monitor attached to each KVM switch, I configured each machine to support the Remote Desktop Protocol. The technique for doing so varies from one operating system to the next, but it's usually pretty simple.

 

  1. In Windows Server 2003, right-click on My Computer and select the Properties command from the resulting shortcut menu.
  2. Windows will open the System Properties sheet. Select the properties sheet's Remote tab.
  3. Click the Enable Remote Desktop check box.
  4. Use the Select Remote Users button to specify which users should be able to remotely access the server.

Once Remote Desktop is enabled, simply create a connection to the remote machine from your workstation. Again, the technique differs based on your version of Windows. In Windows Vista, you must select the Remote Desktop Connection command found on the All Programs | Accessories menu. At a minimum, you must enter the name of the server you are trying to connect to into the dialog box's Computer field, then save your connection settings.

I recommend doing two other things.

  • Go to the Experience tab and select your connection speed. Some visual elements are disabled for slower connections. Unless you select a connection speed, Windows will assume that you are connecting using a 56K modem, and will disable various elements accordingly.
  • Save the Remote Desktop connection to your desktop. That way, you can place a link to each of the remote PCs in a place that is easily accessible.

About the author: Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server, Exchange Server and IIS. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. He writes regularly for SearchWinComputing.com and other TechTarget sites.

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This was first published in May 2007

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