Docking stations and KVM switches and Synergy, oh my
May 14, 2013 8:37 AM   Subscribe

For years I've been doing all my work and a good percentage of my play on a single as-overpowered-as-possible desktop box. For a variety of reasons -- not least that I'm starting to give up hope that the Mac Pro line will ever be updated again -- I'm considering making the switch to several smaller, task-dedicated machines. I am going in circles trying to figure out how best to make them all work together on a hardware level -- I can't decide if I need a docking station or a KVM switch or both or neither, and if I do need them which ones should I get? Help me, hardware geeks!

What I have:
* A by now very outdated (2007) Mac Pro Mac with all four drive bays full
* An even more outdated (circa 2005), pre-thunderbolt but still perfectly functional 30" Cinema Display

Where I (think I) want to end up:
* An always-on mac mini, which will serve as a media server, first line of spam filtering, local webserver, and host for backups, to which I'll want to attach the hard drives I'll pull from
* the Mac Pro, which becomes primarily a windows/bootcamp gaming machine, but whose keyboard and monitor I will also want to have available to the
* new Mac Laptop Of Some Sort which will be my primary work and travel machine. When I'm using this at home I'd like the 30" display to act as a secondary monitor for the laptop.

So -- if this were your setup, how would you get from here to there?

Obviously I need some hard drive enclosures to move my current internal drives over to the mini; is this a situation where it matters what i get, or will anything do?

The other tricky bit is dealing with the monitor / keyboard / mouse situation. The mini can run headless most of the time, except for those times when it can't. Keyboard and mouse will need to be able to regularly switch between the mac pro and the laptop, and at least occasionally to the mini for reboots and configuration... should I be looking at docking stations? KVM switches? Some combination of the two? Or is there a software solution I ought to look into instead? (f'rinstance could I pair a bluetooth keyboard with multiple machines and somehow switch between them as needed? Or would that be dumb?) Is there some obviously superior setup that I'm overlooking?

Convenience and smooth operation is much more important to me than cost savings; I don't want to have to fiddle around under the desk plugging and unplugging cables every time I want to hook up the laptop to the monitor, etc., and if I can spend a few hundred extra bucks to have it all Just Work I will more than happily spend those few hundred extra bucks.

(Just to preempt any suggestions to this effect, I am not interested in switching to Windows or Linux.)
posted by ook to Computers & Internet (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've tried a couple of consumer-grade KVM solutions over the years and I can't say I am entirely happy when there's more than two machines involved. With the caveat that none of the machines involved where Macs, I've done a fair bit of fiddling under the desk - not to switch cables, but to unplug everything to give a recalcitrant USB KVM a hard reboot.

The set-up I ended up with is hooking the nice monitor, keyboard and mouse to my primary machine (laptop), putting everything else (bunch of servers, the odd PC) on the KVM with an old set of peripherals for very occasional use and relying on Remote Desktop/ SSH / X forwarding for everyday access.

If you do end up with a KVM, try not to get one of the streamlined ones that rely entirely on intercepting keyboard signals for switching - actual physical buttons will save you a lot of frustration.
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:56 AM on May 14, 2013

Yeah I've never been happy with inexpensive KVMs either. If you are going to go the KVM route, get a "real" one like an Avocent, not one of the crummy consumer-ish ones. I've found they've always caused frustration and don't play well with some other types of hardware. (USB-PS2 adapters in particular are almost impossible to use with them.)

Unfortunately you can't get a real drop-in docking station for Apple laptops. Years ago they had docking stations (we're talking ancient history here) but they seem to have abandoned the concept, which is too bad. I've always liked them and have had docks for my various Dell and IBM laptops more recently. AFAIK Apple is the only major manufacturer which does not have OEM docking stations for its laptops.

Honestly the main downside of your plan is that it seems like it will mean a whole lot more administrative "overhead" ... time spent just managing all those machines versus one big machine that has all your stuff on it. But if that's what you want to do, you can certainly do it, maybe using Dropbox or something to keep your files synchronized.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:17 AM on May 14, 2013

Best answer: I don't see where you need anything besides the hardware and OS features that will come with your new laptop. Not sure what OS you have on the old Mac Pro but in 10.8 (and I think all the way back to 10.5) will allow you to admin all of those machines remotely. You can configure "Back To My Mac" to login when you are not home if you need to. I have not run into any situation where I needed to have a monitor or a keyboard with my Mini (I'd just control it remotely from my laptop) and it has been running a Filemaker Server database for 3 years with the "power back on" after power failure selected.

I'd also put all of those drives onto DropBox or get a Time Capsule and connect all of the drives to it. Monitor will hook to your laptop- no problems there.

BUT- don't do anything till the new laptops come out from Apple at the end of June. They will have Intel's new chip and it is supposed to be a game changer.
posted by bkeene12 at 9:42 AM on May 14, 2013

Best answer: I was very happy with the my KVM from Aten but it might be overkill for you. I especially liked being able to switch the audio separately from kvm so I could keep listening to one machine while checking on another one. It has big chunky buttons for switching, so it really needs to be on your desk - depends how streamlined and minimal you want to be.
posted by samj at 9:42 AM on May 14, 2013

I'm mainly a synergy user, but I'm always on the lookout for KVM which meets some modern needs beyond PS/2 mouse/keyboard (still?) and VGA analog monitors. USB mouse/kbd is more common now, but finding DVI or similar KVMs has always been a challenge whenever I've tried.

The CS1864 linked by samj above is probably the most modern I've ever seen, but it's been a year or more since I looked.

Synergy is outstanding. I have very infrequent challenges with it but only on Windows. I've used it very little with a work laptop I rarely use in OSX mode, and I remember setup being more complicated, but once set, it was as as successful as Windows usually is.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:47 AM on May 14, 2013

Response by poster: Geez, I completely forgot that "back to my mac" even exists. That'll help.

So -- no easy answers, but thanks for helping me sort this out, guys. I admit I was kind of hoping somebody would pipe up with "I know of exactly the device you need that will solve all your problems" but then I always hope that...
posted by ook at 8:30 AM on May 15, 2013

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