Friday, July 27, 2007

Picking a terminal server

My plans to equip the lab with older, but solid equipment has been going very well thus far. It's not cheap, but it's going to be very functional. The two Netra X1 servers are doing a great job, and I'm really enjoying having a LOM. I wish my "big iron" 420R had a LOM, but a Sun serial port still beats an x86 BIOS program. And what could be cooler than accessing those serial LOM devices through a terminal server? (Yes, I suppose a modern Sun server with an Ethernet LOM would be cooler, but don't burst my bubble, ok?).

So now that I've accumulated these boxes and am beginning to use them on a regular basis, you can imagine that patching wasn't far behind. Patching is one of many activities where a console connection comes in pretty handy. To make a long story short, I quickly grew tired of trucking my laptop downstairs, attaching a serial cable to it, and then performing an elaborate contortion routine to find the LOM port in the back of my rack while pressing my face through cobwebs. Been there before? Yes. I have decided that I need a terminal server.

So, what is my ideal terminal server? Well, there's a few requirements. It must be a quiet, low power device - no giant noisy fans need apply. I need an 8-port device, but 16 would give me room to grow if the price is right. I don't care too much about security protocols - this is a home lab that sits behind a firewall, and all my systems can be reprovisioned from a flash archive in a heartbeat. Should be easy right?

The first thing I learned is there are a LOT of 32-48 port high end (not old!) term servers available, primarily Cyclades devices. These look like Ferraris to me, and I dream of winning an auction for about $50 and attaching that puppy to my rack. Not going to happen... The next thing I noticed is a bunch of really old Xyplex and Perle devices. These rack up, but I read a bunch of horror stories, and got the idea from a few USENET postings that they are loud. I found a few other older devices, but they all had something that didn't seem right to me. It was time to get drastic...

I went with plan "C". In this case, the C stands for Cisco. Turns out that with some auction patience, a properly equipped Cisco 2509 (8 port) or 2511 (16 port) can be had with cables for around $150 or less. That's right at my pain threshold, but acceptable given what it provides. This solution appears to be hit or miss with the issue of spontaneous break signals halting the Sparc machines, which usually happens if the TS powers down, but the kbd command can be used to configure an alternate break sequence and avoid the issue.

The other appealing feature seems to be that I can configure reverse-telnet. This would allow me to run a command like "telnet termserver 2001" to get to port 1. Much more convenient than authenticating to a termserver and navigating annoying menus. And finally, being a full size 19" box I can rack it up without coming up with some combination of plywood and duct-tape. Suh-weet.

The downside? Well, ssh would be more cool than Telnet, but I can swallow my pride. Who knows? Maybe there's a Cisco update that would provide this. It might be a loud device. I have no diea. Another issue which decrements the coeficient of cool: It requires an AUI adapter to convert to an Ethernet RJ45 port. On the other hand, there's probably a lot of new SAs in the world who would look at that like a vintage muscle car... "Whoa - is that a REAL aui adapter, dude? You're must be hard core." Um, yeah. Maybe not. Although the loudness and power consumption concern me, I think I can live with these issues if it works, which I'm reasonably confident it will.

Now, to set up an eBay search and begin the hunt...

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