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Topic Summary

Posted by: kek
« on: November 29, 2017, 05:22:29 PM »

What is a Serial Console, and why would we use it?

In this post I would like to take the time to tell you a little about Serial Consoles and COM ports, and why we still uses it

What is Serial Console?
The serial console is a connection over the RS-232 or serial port connection that allows a person access to a computer or network device console. Typically, a console is accessed over an SSH connection. However, with software, hardware, or other access problems, it may only be possible to access the machine or device (e.g. routers and switches) over a serial connection. Older computers and headless computer (computers or devices without monitors) also use the serial console as the main way to access the console.

The system console, computer console, root console, operator's console, or simply console is the text entry and display device for system administration messages, particularly those from the BIOS or boot loader, the kernel, from the init system and from the system logger. It is a physical device consisting of a keyboard and a screen, and traditionally is a text terminal, but may also be a graphical terminal. System consoles are generalized to computer terminals, which are abstracted respectively by virtual consoles and terminal emulators. Today communication with system consoles is generally done abstractly, via the standard streams (stdin, stdout, and stderr), but there may be system-specific interfaces, for example those used by the system kernel.

The console is the text output device for system administration messages. These messages come from the kernel, from the init system and from the system logger. On modern small computers the console is usually the computer's attached monitor and keyboard. On many older computers the console is an RS-232 link to a terminal such as a DEC VT100. This terminal is in a locked room and is continually observed by the minicomputer's operators. Large systems from Sun, Hewlett-Packard and IBM still use serial consoles. It is usually possible to login from the console. A login session from the console is treated by many parts of the operating system as being more trustworthy than a login session from other sources. Logging in as the root super-user from the console is the Command Line of Last Resort when faced with a misbehaving system.

Why should we use a serial console?
For the average user a serial console has no advantage over a console offered by a directly attached keyboard and screen. Serial consoles are much slower, taking up to a second to fill a 80 column by 24 line screen. Serial consoles generally only support non-proportional ASCII text, with limited support for languages other than English. A new terminal can be more expensive than an old PC.

There are some scenarios where serial consoles are useful. These are:

 - Systems administration of remote computers
 - High density racks of computers
 - Recording console messages
 - Embedded software development

Systems administration of remote computers
Linux is a good operating system for deployment at unstaffed sites. Linux is also good for hosting critical network infrastructure such as DNS and DHCP services. These services are generally installed at every site of an organisation including sites which may be too small or too remote to have information technology staff. System administration of these remote computers is usually done using SSH, but there are times when access to the console is the only way to diagnose and correct software failures. Major upgrades to the installed distribution may also require console access. In these cases the serial console is attached to a modem. Access to the console is gained from a remote computer by dialing into the modem. This allows the console to be reached from any telephone socket.

High density racks of computers
Clusters of personal computers can outperform mainframe computers and form competitive supercomputers for some applications. See the Cluster-HOWTO for more information on clustering. These clusters are typically assembled into 19 inch telecommunications equipment racks and the system unit of each computer is typically one rack unit (or 1.75 inches) tall. It is not desirable to put a keyboard and monitor on each computer, as a small cathode ray tube monitor would consume the space used by sixteen rack units. A first glance it seems that a monitor and keyboard switch is the best solution. However the VGA signal to the monitor is small, so even with the switch the monitor cannot be placed very far away from the rack of computers. It is desirable to allow the consoles to be monitored in the operators' room of the computer center, rather than in the very expensive space of the machine room. Although monitor switches with remote control and fiber optical extensions are available, this solution can be expensive. A standard RS-232 cable can be 15 meters in length. Longer distances are easily possible. The cabling is cheap. Terminal servers can be used to allow one terminal to access up to 90 serial consoles.

Recording console messages
This is useful in two very different cases.

Kernel programmers are often faced with a kernel error message that is displayed a split second before the computer reboots. A serial console can be used to record that message. Another Linux machine can be used as the serial terminal. Some secure installations require all security events to be unalterably logged. One way to meet this requirement is to print all console messages. Connecting the serial console to a serial printer can achieve this.

Embedded software development
Linux is increasingly being used as an operating system for embedded applications. These computers do not have keyboards or screens. A serial port is a cheap way to allow software developers to directly access the embedded computer. This is invaluable for debugging. Most chip sets designed for embedded computers have a serial port precisely for this purpose. The shipping product need not present the RS-232 port on an external connector. Alternatively the RS-232 port is often used for downloading software updates.