What I Use – My Home Office Setup

Update: The headline picture is not my home office setup – in the picture it is far too tidy!

Last week I blogged about how to work from home securely and productively. The thing that was missing from that blog was how I connect my home office up. As we are all being forced to work from home during the current health crisis, I thought I would share what I use as a seasoned home worker.

Firstly, I actually have a job with an international company where I have the ability to work from home using a company provided laptop. This laptop provides access to the company resources via a secure VPN. This is a typical secure company setup. However not all companies provide this but this is not the subject of this blog. I also have a serious interest in Cyber Security which is also part of my day job and will in the future become more of my focus (more of that in the future).

My Setup

When I work from home I have an office setup which is in a separate room that has all the hardware I need to do my job. The way I connect all this up is shown in the diagram below, and I will explain this in some detail.

The centre of my setup is a Keyboard/Video/Mouse (KVM) switch. This provides the ability to connect up to four PC’s to share a single Monitor, Keyboard and Mouse. The one I have has:

  • Four 4K/60Hz HDMI input connectors to connect the video output from up to four PC’s/devices
  • Four USB connectors to connect the shared Keyboard/Mouse to up to four PC’s
  • Additional USB Ports to provide access to Printers, Headsets, etc.
  • A dedicated Keyboard/Mouse USB connector to connect the shared Keyboard/Mouse
  • One 4K/60hz HDMI Output to connect to the shared monitor.

My monitor is a 1080p HD 27″ wide screen monitor, but the setup allows me to connect a 4K monitor in the future (this was a necessary future proofing requirement).

The following PC’s are connected to the KVM Switch:

  • My desktop PC, which is what I use for doing the heavy lifting for running Virtual Machines for development and testing as well as high CPU utilization requirements
  • My Home server which runs my local storage and a few other services
  • My Personal laptop through a docking station (when needed)
  • My Company Provided Laptop (when needed).

These machines are connected to the Internet through my Internet Router via a mixture of wired and WiFi connections. My smartphone, tablet and other family household PC’s/tablets/TV set-top boxes are also connected through the router using WiFi.

This looks complicated, but really once you have all the connections done, I control the whole setup through Keyboard shortcuts or a provided remote control that switches to different PC’s connecting the shared Keyboard/Mouse/Monitor to the four connected PC’s. All I have to do is make sure the appropriate device is switched on and the rest just happens by a few keystrokes.

The way I have my setup configured it to allow me to connect PC’s together. However, you could also use the KVM switch to connect your monitor to a:

  • TV set top box (e.g. Sky Box, Cable TV Box)
  • Chrome-cast device
  • DVR
  • Video conferencing system
  • Game Console.

The possibilities are endless.

The KVM switch I use only has a single video output, which in hindsight was a mistake. There are KVM switches that provide a dual monitor output and in time I may upgrade to one. Comparing the one I have to the dual monitor configuration from the same manufacturer, the price was around £40 more. However, for now I can make use of multiple desktops under Windows 10 which works reasonably well for managing different workflows. When I use my company provided laptop I can also configure the laptop screen to extend to act as a second monitor. I also have a laptop riser to bring it up to the required height (you could use a few books to do the same).

How to select the KVM Switch

First decide how many inputs you need. I needed four, but if you are connecting more devices you will need more video/USB inputs.

Decide how many outputs you need. At the time I needed one HDMI/4K capable output, but if you want a dual monitor setup then you will need two.

Decide if you need 4K video input/output support as this cannot be added later.

The switch will provide enough USB connectors to connect the individual input PC’s to the shared keyboard/mouse. However, how many more do you need? For example do you want to connect:

  • A printer
  • USB Headset
  • External Speakers/amplifier
  • Smartphone for file upload/download/charging
  • External Hard Drives and NAS Drives.

You will need a USB port for each, or extend one using a USB Hub.

Regarding the USB ports, investigate whether you need Type A (the normal rectangular USB connector) or the Type C (rounded/reversible rectangular connector) connections. At the moment going for Type C USB support will be more expensive, but this can be provided using a USB hub supporting Type C connections connected to one of the Type A ports or a Type A/C converter.

There are several grades of KVM switch available from the home setup (which is what I have) that allows you to project 4K video all the way to professional switches that serve industrial size displays. The price for each varies depending on the features.

What you do what to make sure of is that the video connector is HDMI or possibly Display Port and not VGA which is a very much older analogue display connector. DVI is a digital video connector that is provided on a number of desktop PC’s, but is limited when you consider 4K output.

8K video Input/Output and scaling is also available.

Using USB Type C/Thunderbolt Connections

I haven’t found any KVM switches supporting Thunderbolt yet, but I am guessing they are available and probably very expensive. USB Type C is also becoming a standard for connecting to a monitor, so I am also guessing that when the technology matures these will be available (if not already at a price).

Telephony/Video Chatting

When I need to do telephone calls, IM or video chat I tend to use a service like Skype via my PC, hence a landline doesn’t figure in my home office setup. There are several more services, but Skype is free with your Microsoft/Outlook account for consumer and non-profit organizations and can be accessed via:

  • The Outlook Website
  • Desktop apps for Windows and MAC OS
  • Mobile apps for Android and IOS.

Skype provides international dialing at local dialing costs as well as local incoming landline numbers, voice mail, instant messaging and video chat – all cross platform. You really don’t need to buy extra services so long as you are either a not-for-profit organization or you are using it for non-business purposes. If you are using it for business purposes, then there are subscriptions that allow multiple connections through Microsoft 365 or Office 365.

There are many other services similar to Skype, but I do recommend you look at the terms of use and their privacy policy before you use them. You should also look at their cross-platform capability so that you can access your phone service from anywhere.

There are also enterprise wide services provided by the main telephone hardware manufacturers that provide soft-phone, chat and Video conferencing services for companies. These can be accessed via the cloud, so there is really no need to have your own telephony PBX in your office any more.

Conclusion

Using the setup I have above I can literally work from anywhere, including a beach in the Caribbean, so long as I have a stable and fast Internet connection.

When this current health crisis resolves itself (and it will eventually), there will be a new Business-As-Usual that will feature home/remote working more prominently. Companies will realize that they don’t need expensive offices housing thousands of employees in prime locations. People will start to realize that they can have a better home/life balance when working at least some days from home and saving on expensive commuting costs into cities like London and New York. Offices will be for specialized/secure working environments as well as jobs where a remote option is not possible (e.g. manufacturing). If I was setting up a Start-Up company now, remote working would be my first choice with hiring offices and meeting rooms on an as needed basis for client meetings.

I hope this blog, although not my usual style, has been useful. I will add more in the ‘What I Use’ series in the future.


Headline Image provided by Pexels from Pixabay

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