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USB-over-IP goes mainstream


I've been into virtualization for a long, long time, so I was familiar with the USB-over-IP concept. It has always been the preferred way to bring USB into a virtual machine, because it doesn't limit the flexibility of virtualization: live migration (vMotion), failover (HA), fault tolerance, ... can all handle USB-over-IP.
But I was still surprised to find a cheap USB-over-IP device in a local computer store: the Belkin Network USB Hub, NUH for short. 100 USD list price, became EUR 90 retail price here in Belgium. Not the greatest deal around, but no reason to feel grumpy.
Now let's see what this baby can do: the test setup consists of the Belkin NUH and two clients: a Windows Vista 32-bit laptop connected over WiFI and a Windows 2008 R2 64-bit VM on VMware vSphere connected over wired GigE. Then I gathered a diverse set of USB devices: USB memory sticks, USB hard drives, a USB smartcard reader, and a USB CD/DVD writer.
The NUH gets a DHCP address by default (can be changed to a fixed IP). The Belkin software on each client detects the NUH on the LAN, shows you which USB devices are plugged in, and which system name is using each USB device.
Claiming a device is easy, and after installing a suitable driver, the device is ready to use. I didn't encounter problems using any device I tested !
So all in all, it works very well, and as easy as can be. However, as a virtualization user, I've got to consider home use as well. And I have to be honest: this device is probably not for production use. Why ? Let's look at both sides of the medal:
Pro's:
  • 5 USB ports can each be used by a different system
  • Easy setup
  • Wide compatibility. Every USB device that I tested worked. Even a webcam worked, even though Belkin says they don't guarantee the functionality of webcams and some other devices
  • Relatively cheap. I've seen solutions 3 to 5 times more expensive, including some with less functionality.
Cons:
  • Windows only. That's a pity. The NUH runs an embedded OS (doesn't seem to be Linux however), and the protocol is probably Belkin-specific (I guess?).
  • Security aimed at home use: no passwords, no authentication. Every computer on the network can connect, see which USB devices are there, see who's using them, and connect to unused devices. True, the NUH can firewall (allow or deny) a couple of IP ranges, but anyone who can reprogram his own IP address on the LAN, can circumvent that. Using one NUH per OS and allowing just that one single IP address is the most secure option, but not the cheapest, nor the most manageable one.
  • Not that fast. I saw a sustained 3MBps from a client to the NUH, which is not the peak performance a USB disk can do.

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