SolutionBase: Facilitate device sharing on small networks with Keyspan USB Server

Configure Keyspan USB Server to share printers and scanners on small networks.

If you support a small business network (or remote office) running in a peer-to-peer workgroup configuration, chances are good that you deal with peripheral sharing issues on a regular basis. For instance, if one employee shuts down her system, which shares a printer for the workgroup, then the other employees can’t print. If one employee, whose system has a scanner attached to it, is working on a deadline, chances are that employee is not going to have time to relinquish the system so that another worker can use it to scan in some needed forms.

Sure you could solve the problem by setting up a dedicated system in a central location for printer sharing and scanning, but that would mean purchasing a new system as well as all the extra expenses that come with adding and supporting an additional machine. On the other hand, you may have thought about getting a print server device, but that wouldn’t solve the problem with sharing the scanner.

These are the same types of problems that the folks at Keyspan were looking to solve when they developed the USB Server, a compact device that connects directly to the network and is designed to share USB printers, USB multifunction machines (printer/fax/scanner), and USB scanners among Windows 2000/XP and Mac OS X systems (Windows 9x/Me is not supported).

In this article, I’ll introduce you to the Keyspan USB Server. As I do, I’ll explain how to set it up and then show you how it works in a typical SOHO network environment.

How it works

To begin with, you’re probably wondering how the USB Server works and what makes it different from a standard print server. Well, to begin with, this network device contains an embedded USB host controller very similar to the one built right into most computers. The accompanying software that is installed on each client system connects to this device over the network and makes it appear as though an additional USB host controller has been added to each system. Thus, the client system can access any device connected to the USB Server just as if the device were connected directly to the USB port on the system itself.

While this software wizardry brings to the table great potential for networking typical stand-alone USB devices, it does bring with it one limitation that you wouldn’t expect in a networking environment, and that is that any device connected to the USB Server can be used by only one client system at a time. Even so, the benefits of being able to share the types of devices that the USB Server is designed to handle generally outweigh this slight inconvenience. That said, keep in mind that the USB Server is aimed at the SOHO market, where a small number of client systems in a workgroup configuration is the norm.

Now, as I mentioned, the USB Server is designed to share USB printers, USB multifunction machines, and USB scanners over a network. At this point in time, these are the only types of USB devices that are officially supported. (You can find a product-specific listing of officially supported devices in the online version of the User Manual.)

The product documentation states that you can also connect USB HID (Human Interaction Devices) such as keyboards and mice to the USB Server, but I can’t imagine that doing so would have any real-world use. The documentation also mentions that Keyspan has tested USB storage devices with the USB Server and some do in fact work, but at a diminished performance level. So, this version of the software does not officially support USB storage devices.

Uninstall current drivers

If you currently have the device that you intend to connect to the USB Server, connected directly to your system, I discovered in my testing that you should uninstall the software/drivers before you begin. You can then reinstall the software/drivers when you first connect to the device on the USB Server.

The reason for this reinstallation is due to the fact that the USB Server contains its own USB host controller. If you currently have the device installed on your system, its software/drivers are linked to the system’s built-in USB host controller. As such, if you don’t reinstall the software/drivers, they will continue to look for the device on the built-in USB host controller, and the device will not be found. However, when you reinstall the software/drivers after the new USB host controller is in place, everything will be connected correctly.

The software package

Now that you have a good idea of how the USB Server works, let’s take a closer look at how to use it. As you can see in Figure A, the USB Server really is a compact device that is not really much bigger than the installation CD. Of course, this makes it easy to inconspicuously add this device to your network—the device can sit on a desk or be mounted to the wall. As you can see, on the side there is an RJ45 port, and on the front are 4 USB 1.x ports (Keyspan is planning on adding USB 2.0 support in future versions).

Figure A

The Keyspan USB Server package includes a QuickStart guide and an installation CD.

The QuickStart guide shows you how to set up the USB Server with the default settings. There’s a very detailed manual in PDF format on the CD.

Setting up the USB Server

By default, the USB Server is configured to obtain an IP address via DHCP. So the first step is to plug in an Ethernet cable to connect the device to your network. You then connect the power supply. As soon as you do, the USB server establishes a connection with the DHCP server; it then requests and is assigned an IP address. Once the network connection is established, the appropriate lights on the device will begin blinking.

Using the application software, you can change several of the USB Server’s default settings. For example, you can set a static IP address (if you don’t have a DHCP server, which is quite likely on small network) or assign a specific name and password to the device. You can even update the software and firmware.

Keep in mind that you must not connect any devices to the USB Server at this point. You’ll need to install the USB Server application software on the client systems first.

Installing the software

In order to access the devices that you’ll attach to the USB Server, you’ll need to install the software on each system that will use those devices across the network. Installation is a breeze, but you will need to have administrative privileges to execute it.

During the installation procedure, Windows will display the Found New Hardware Wizard several times. Just click Next to accept the default Install Software Automatically option.

Unfortunately, the USB Server software hasn’t earned the official Designed for Windows logo. So, if you’re using Windows XP, you’ll encounter a warning message indicating that the software has not passed the official Logo Testing requirement. Just click Continue Anyway.

Once the installation is complete, you’ll see the Keyspan USB Server application window, shown in Figure B. This application will allow you to configure the USB Server itself as well as access and use your USB devices. Before you continue, you should close the Keyspan USB Server application.

Figure B

You’ll use the Keyspan USB Server application to configure the USB Server and access your USB devices.

Once you’ve installed the software, you can connect a device’s USB cable to the USB Server. Then, power on that USB device.

Using a device connected to the USB Server

To use your USB device over a network, you begin by launching the Keyspan USB Server application. When you do, you’ll see your device appear under the Other Devices heading, as shown in Figure C. While my particular example device is recognized by its Vendor ID and Product ID, some devices will be recognized by product name.

Figure C

USB devices connected to the USB Server will first appear under the Other Devices heading.

To continue, you’ll select the device and click the Connect button. The device will then move from the Other Devices heading to the My Devices heading.

The first time you connect to the device, the Found New Hardware Wizard will launch, and you can install the software/drivers for the USB device. After the installation completes, as well as on subsequent connections, you can begin to use the device as you normally would once you’re connected to it.

As I mentioned earlier, any device connected to the USB Server can be used by only one client system/user at a time. Therefore, when one client system is connected to the USB device, other users who attempt to use the device will see it in the Keyspan USB Server application under the Other Devices heading, but it will be marked as In Use, as shown in Figure D, and they will be unable to connect to it until the current user disconnects from the device.

Figure D

If the USB device is in use, no one will be able to use it until the connection is terminated by the current user.

Once you’re finished using the device attached to the USB Server, it is important that you disconnect from it. To do so, just switch to the USB Server application, select the device, and click the Disconnect button.

Getting the Keyspan USB Server

The Keyspan USB Server carries a suggested retail price of $129.99. You can purchase it at computer retail stores such as CompUSA, as well as from an online retailer such as Amazon. For a full list of retail outlets from which you can purchase the Keyspan USB Server, see the Sales page on the Keyspan Web site.

Final analysis

During my evaluation of the Keyspan USB Server, I was able to get it to work only with USB devices shown on Keyspan’s USB Device Compatibility list. I was unable to get similar, yet slightly older, devices to function. As such, I would definitely have to say that you can only benefit from this product if your USB printer, USB multifunction machine, or USB scanner is specifically mentioned on the USB Device Compatibility list. Otherwise, I wouldn’t count on it as a solution.

To be fair, I should mention that Keyspan is continually testing products and adding them to the list. So be sure to check the Keyspan Web site regularly for the most current list.