Use the Digi AnywhereUSB to connect USB devices to virtual machines

One challenge related to moving to an all-virtual ESX-based server infrastructure lies in the realm of USB hardware support. Regardless of workload, some servers simply have to be able to communicate with specific USB devices. Scott Lowe introduces you to Digi's AnywhereUSB, a network-based device that makes USB devices accessible over an IP network.

Some vendors still insist on using hardware devices to enforce antiquated and cruel licensing policies. These vendors have graduated from using parallel and serial port license enforcement dongles to using USB-based devices. While IT professionals everywhere truly wish that these people would read up on the merits of licensing servers, we can't say that humanity as a whole has evolved yet to this shared vision of licensing nirvana.

It's bad enough that we have to worry about these devices being lost, stolen, or damaged, but the vendors also make it more difficult to help save the environment and cut costs through the use of powerful virtualization technologies. Fortunately, Digi has seen the light — and the profit — and developed AnywhereUSB, a network-based device with USB-over-IP capability that makes it possible for many USB-based devices — including the loathed licensing dongle — to peacefully coexist with even the most heavily virtualized data center. In short, AnywhereUSB makes the network-connected USB device appear to be locally connected to the virtual server. (AnywhereUSB is useful in much more than just server virtualization scenarios but that is the reason that we've purchased the device at Westminster College.)

Digi makes three versions of the AnywhereUSB device: AnywhereUSB/2, AnywhereUSB/5, AnywhereUSB/TS. All versions feature a 10/100 Ethernet port suitable for placing the device on the IP network. The AnywhereUSB/2 features two USB ports capable of supporting USB 1.0, 1.1, and 2.0 devices, although USB 2.0 devices top out at a transmission speed of 12 Mbps, even on a 100 Mbps network. The AnywhereUSB/5 can support up to five connected USB devices. The AnywhereUSB TS boasts four USB ports, as well as four RS-232 ports to allow for traditional serial communication (up to 230K per port) over IP.  All of the AnywhereUSB models have drivers for Windows Vista, Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows Server 2008, Windows Server 2003, Windows NT, Windows XP Embedded, and Windows NT Embedded.

The image below shows you the Digi-made diagrams of each of the AnywhereUSB models.

AnywhereUSB models

AnywhereUSB doesn't support every USB device out there and, even if it did, there are some things that would be painfully slow with the USB hub. Take external hard drives, for instance; who would want to sit around while an external hard drive tossed data over the network at a paltry maximum speed of 12 Mbps? AnywhereUSB also doesn't support isochronous USB devices, which include audio devices and a lot of streaming video devices. Digi provides a compatibility checker so you can find out what devices will work.

For those of you with non-Windows VMware guests who want to use AnywhereUSB, you're out of luck. Digi's product is a Windows-only affair, with no support for other operating systems.

For those with relatively common and simple needs (and Windows), AnywhereUSB may be the right solution, as the device extends the reach of your virtual server's USB reach to anywhere within IP range.

Oh, yeah... I really don't like license enforcement via hardware dongles. ;-)

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About Scott Lowe

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

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