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The KVM switch seems to be a simple solution to a problem suffered by many control room operators, when they have different data sources (secure networks) that cannot be mixed. In other words, they need a different computer system for each separate data source they want to consult. In order not to constantly walk (or roll) from one workstation to the other, a KVM switch seems ideal. Unfortunately, there are issues if you want to use them in mission-critical control rooms.
A traditional KVM (short for Keyboard/ Video/Mouse) switch is a commercial device that allows you to connect multiple computers to a single keyboard, mouse and display. You can manually switch a common monitor from displaying one system to another while remaining neatly behind your desk. Plus, because the computer systems are never mixed, there is no security risk whatsoever. However, here are 5 reasons not to use a KVM switch in a control room:
When using one keyboard, one mouse, and one display, you never get a real overview of the entire situation. You could be monitoring one system’s data while disaster strikes on a different system not currently being displayed, and not have a clue on what’s happening.
In order to avoid this lack of overview, clever users choose to connect every computer system to a separate monitor. In this case, the KVM switch is only related to the keyboard and mouse. This indeed helps to get a more complete overview. However, because in basic KVM switches the mouse and keyboard still need to be manually switched, it’s always difficult to keep track of the mouse pointer. In times of crisis, this can cause a lot of frustrations.
"With traditional KVM switches you always need as many computer screens as you have different computer systems" Related article: Speeding up the decision-making process at times of emergencies.
There is also a solution for this manual switching. Intelligent KVM over IP systems already allow you to freely flow your mouse pointer from one screen to another, letting you keep track of the pointer’s location. So there it is: the ultimate solution. Sadly… there are a number of issues with this as well. First of all, there is no possibility to show multiple systems in windows on a single screen– the computer is always full screen if you want to be able to interact with the remote machine. In other words, you always need as many computer screens as you have different computer systems that you want to monitor simultaneously. Sometimes that’s not an issue, sometimes it’s too much to fit on the operator’s desk. And, knowing that typically the number of secure sources tend to increase, this might become an issue in the not-so-distant future.
Building further on the previous point, it’s also impossible to interact with systems side by side on one screen. This is very often used to compare information easily. In a KVM-based system, the computers are fixed to a full screen. Dragging one window to a particular screen to combine with related data from another computer is therefore impossible. This hampers the intuitive workflow of operators.
The most convenient way for operators to work, would be to call a certain application directly in front of them. In this way, they can interact immediately with the domain that demands their attention the most. However, with KVM switches, this is not a simple intuitive mouse-click action, causing lost time for the operators in times of emergencies.
Not all experts and decision-makers are present in the control room – or even located in the same building. This means that technology is expected to be able to share information or situational overviews between different locations, or even towards mobile devices. Using KVM-switches, where applications are tied to screens and cannot be mixed, it is impossible to combine all relevant information and send it to remote experts and decision-makers.
Every user is unique, and has his or her preferred way of working. One operator likes to combine all data and dashboards together on the right-hand side, while another likes to have this information on the bottom display row. This is very hard to do in a standard KVM system, requiring a lot of effort to set up.
While commercial KVM switches can be a very handy – and often cheap – solution to work with multiple computer systems with one keyboard and mouse, they have some serious limitations. When working with three or more computers, they quickly become more troublesome than useful.
At Barco, we have been hearing these complaints from mission-critical control room operators – claiming they either had to stick with the limitations of a KVM-based system, or return to the traditional setup with multiple keyboard/mouse combinations. This is the kind of input that formed the foundations of Barco OpSpace. The ambition was to create an operator workspace software solution that is really tailored to operators’ preferred and intuitive ways of working, without considering the system’s limitations. OpSpace therefore offers the same user experience, regardless the technology (hardware or software) that is used to control the remote computers.