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How to connect USB devices to your home network Saturday, 15/03/2008 by nik

If you want to network your USB devices then I can heartily recommend the Lantronix USB server. It works for ANY USB device, not just printers and storage.

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The problem 

src-UBox_2100_216px.gifThere are a variety of approaches for networking attached computer devices such as printers, hard drives, scanners and so on. Windows (Linux and so on) understands how to "talk" to some of these devices over the network, For example, printing to a networked printer. This means you can install a "print server" which attaches your printer to your network, and then windows sees the print server as a networked printer, and uses the appropriate network protocol to communicate with it.

The same is true of storage (hard disk drives). Networked file systems are a very commonplace thing, especially in the workplace, so by attaching a hard drive to a suitable "network enclosure", the hard disk appears as networked storage (i.e. like a server) on your network. Again, windows uses appropriate protocols to communicate with it (SAMBA, WEBDAV, FTP etc.)

However, the problem with this is it is not universal. I.e. the only devices you can attach to the network are the ones that windows (or other operating system) "knows" how to communicate with over the network. And this is a limited number of types of device. What's more, you need to buy some kind of network device (e.g. print server, network attached storage enclosure etc.) to convert each of your standalone devices to a networked version. This is expensive and takes up a lot of space and power.

So is there a better solution?

The solution

USB - universal serial bus is something that is universal. I.e. many devices connect via USB, and many types of computer support this type of interface (PC, Mac etc.) The vast majority of computer peripherals these days attach using USB.

Enter the LAXTRONIX USB server. This clever solution consist of two components.

  1. the USB network server which attaches to your network and presents 4 USB ports out the back
  2. a piece of software which communicates with the USB server over the network and makes each networked USB port look like a local USB port attached to the computer.

src-IMG_ubox4100_200px.gifThe clever bit is really the software whcih makes the USB server ports look as though they are local USB ports. First you plug your desired USB device into the USB server (which is attached to your network) - e.g. a printer, hard drive, memory stick, webcam - anything USB!  You then launch the control panel for the USB server and you see this item listed against one of the four USB ports. So far so good..

Then you click your chosen device and the software "connects" it. This is where the clever part happens, because when you connect the network device, the control software "fools" windows into thinking the device has just been plugged into a local USB port. That's right - all of a sudden your PC thinks you have plugged to device into the PC itself.

Everything from that point on will work as if you really had plugged the device directly into your PC - for example, windows will detect the device and popup the appropriate message, and it will load (or ask to install) the appropriate drivers (as with any USB device you only have to do this once, and if you've already done it with the device attached to the PC, you won't have to do it again anyway.)

What's so good about this solution is that it will work with almost any USB device under the sun, because the USB server just does the job of sending the USB signals over the network between the software on your PC and the device itself. The actual drivers and protocol needed to communicate with the device itself are already on your PC. It's fabulous.

The benefits

This solution works slightly differently to the traditional "print server" or "network file server" in the sense that each device can only be used on one PC at a time (let's be honest, for most devices this is not a big deal - after all you can only physically print from one PC at a time, scan one document at a time etc.)  You "attach" the networked USB device using the lantronix control software and then you detach it when you are done. In practice this is no big deal - and indeed, other users can see that the device is in use, who is using it, and when it becomes available again.  So, it's quite a neat solution.

In fact, it is even smarter when it comes to printers - because it has an "auto-connect" function. When you print, the control software automatically attaches the printer for you (just as if you had plugged it in your USB port) and when the print job is finished it detaches it automatically - and so the printer behaves just as if it was connected to a networked print server.

the big advantage of this solution is you can network practically any USB device - for example, as well as a printer and storage I have, in the past, attached:

  • my ipod
  • other mp3 players, to use a music library
  • a USB-serial conversion cable in order to connect to my X10 home automation server.
  • USB memory sticks
  • USB headset (pretty pointless really, but it proves you can do it)
  • memory card reader
  • scanner

...and so on. It is brilliant being able to connect all these devices in one place and then use them on any PC in the house.

Where to get it

I've produced this article because it took me quite a while to find this solution and then source the Lantronix box. In the end I ordered it directly from AlphaMicro (more info here) who were very efficient and Helpful. Uou'd think it would be easier to get hold of such a useful device - but I guess (for some odd reason) it is only really being targetted at business users, rather than home users. Although it looks like Mavromatic may have now taken up this challenge, according to the automatedhome website.

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