Agencies seek to harness the power of distributed print

Distributed print services play a key role in getting federal client/server systems to run smoothly in heterogeneous environments, and for organizations that put effort into properly managing them, it is an area that can pay large dividends.

Electronic distribution to networked printers can drastically cut print and mail costs, for example. One agency is expecting a near tenfold decrease in its printing costs through the evolution of "just in time" printing over networks.

But it's also an area that has major problems. Printer demand and problem resolution are prime complaints among local-area network systems administrators, and it is difficult to duplicate the control of printing resources that was available in the mainframe environment familiar to many agencies.

What printing has been available over networks has been relatively limited. There has not been much distributed, enterprise-level Unix printing, for example. That is because of "the complexity of trying to string [printers] together using custom-developed, hard-wired solutions," according to Matt Tormollen, product line manager for Dazel Corp., a leading vendor of distributed output management products.

Distributed print management is "a big problem," agreed Angele Boyd, peripherals research director for International Data Corp. There are a lot of legacy issues to deal with, she said, and many solutions seem "to end up having proprietary twists."

Even commercial customers are just beginning to get their arms around "total print costs," said Kerry Bensman, director of software business for IBM Printing Systems. Because printers may be purchased by separate departments, managers may be unaware of the enterprise-level overhead.

Given the fairly early stage of distributed management capability available in today's networked printers, it's not surprising that current use is limited. Xerox Corp., for example, has "not seen a requirement for distributed print services in [government indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity]" procurements, according to Mike Mellon, director of business development.

But "awareness is growing," he said, and questions from government information resources managers indicate a need for enterprisewide document management, including printing at selected locations worldwide.

The Defense Printing Service, which handles the Defense Department's publishing, is one of the few agencies that appears to have a fairly sophisticated awareness of distributed printing, and it is preparing a distributed output strategy for printing and a range of other media.

"We're moving from print-store-distribute to print on demand, using networks for ordering and distributing data for output at the point of use," director Michael Cocchiola explained. (The vast majority of DPS' printing is handled by outside vendors.)

Network-based, digital print management will reduce total life-cycle costs, he said, because in a move to a digital environment, "you can eliminate warehouses, mailing and [much] paper handling." Producing a manual in CD-ROM, for example, costs a quarter of what it takes to print it.

Electronic distribution to networked printers can save about 25 percent of what it costs to print and mail, and it can deliver the product to the customer five to 15 days sooner, according to George Shaver, DPS' Southeast Area director. Customers will order just what they need rather than stocking up on duplicates.

DPS is currently "looking at a potential contract" for color printing, requiring output "anywhere in the country within 24 hours," Cocchiola said.

The overall DPS architecture will be flexible, capable of outputting data in paper, on-line, in CD-ROM form and through other media in a number of digital formats. Right now, however, the agency "is concentrating on conversion [of documents] and on building the network," Cocchiola said.

Under the new model, customers will access the DPS system - and administrators will monitor it - through Doc-

Access, a customized interface based on Microsoft Corp.'s Access tool, said Ann Barnes, DPS' special assistant for technology.

Now in prototype, DocAccess will allow users to access and send their jobs to a local DPS node as well as check job status and estimated costs, she said. Administrators will use the interface to determine the best resources for jobs. Customers will also be able to hook up to DPS via the World Wide Web, she said.

The agency's Philadelphia office shows what the system's evolution will be in miniature.

The site now operates a "specs-and-standards automated output" system, and although it now only prints at the Philadelphia office, in the near future it will "transport data to other locations for printing - wherever the customer is," said Pat White, director of DPS' Northeast Area.

The office is now "transitioning data into the PDF format" to allow for smaller, viewable files for transmission, White said. Customers will be able to access the specs-and-standards database via the World Wide Web or through the agency's internal cc:Mail system. As of October, users will also have the option of converting data to CD-ROM.

Given the number and variety of legacy systems throughout government, interoperability has been seen as one of the major potential problems when it comes to distributed printing, but the situation is definitely improving, with multiplatform products from such companies as Dazel and Intel Corp. now available. And printer manufacturer Xerox is undertaking initiatives with its competitors to cover management issues in both NetWare and Unix.

The Novell Distributed Print Services (NDPS) effort, for example, in which Xerox is teamed with Novell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., will enable more robust, multivendor management through NetWare 4X.

In the Unix environment, Xerox is working with Digital Equipment Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. to enhance printer management.

From the HP perspective, "when NDPS ships, it will be compatible with the entire installed base of HP printers," said Dave Phiel, public relations manager for HP's commercial printer business. HP's JetAdmin utility already allows remote configuration, monitoring and management of HP laser and ink-jet printers.

Xerox, Lexmark International Inc. and HP, among others, have already come up with various kinds of print management, Mellon said.

Xerox's Document Services for Printing capability, for example, allows users to identify printers that meet their size and color requirements and to obtain accounting data.

And Lexmark's MarkVision, which is integrated with its Optra family of laser printers, saves network bandwidth by avoiding device polling, according to Bill Errico, manager of the company's federal marketing program. If a problem arises, Mark-

Vision sends print, audible and screen messages.

The system can also work with certain HP printers, Errico said, and versions of the technology are currently in use by the Tennessee Valley Authority and the U.S. Postal Service.

IBM's Printing Systems Manager, which began shipping last September, supports clients on OS/2, Windows 3.1, Windows 95, HP-UX and AIX, according to Bensman.

Tektronix Inc., meanwhile, has attacked the ease-of-use issue with its PhaserLink Web-based printer management and support software for Phaser 550 color printers.

For on-line documentation, users simply connect to the printer's embedded Web page over an IP network.

Administrators use the interface to check printer status and change printer configuration or IP addresses, said Andy Davidson, application engineer with the Tektronix Color Printing Division. The printer software also embeds links to Tektronix support and product information and allows a user-settable link to a local help desk, he said.

PhaserLink is only for status and maintenance information, however, not for sending print jobs.

The Naval Ordnance Center, Atlantic Division, is another government outfit that expects big things from third-party print solutions.

While Unix provides some print services, they're limited, said Lambros Tzerefos, director of IRM at the center. There's no ability, out of the box, for doing such things as breaking into files and e-mailing parts of them, he said.

His unit has adopted Dazel's product because it allows administrators to keep abreast of developing problems and to determine how and where to print.

The Ordnance Center is currently installing the product in conjunction with Tivoli Systems Inc. network management software and expects to be operational in September.

With the new print management software, Tzerefos sees increased flexibility and lower costs. People will be able to selectively print one page instead of getting the whole document and practice "just-in-time printing," he said.

From spending $300,000 a year on print contracts, Tzerefos expects the new system to cut the center's costs to around $70,000 and to as low as $35,000 in another two or three years.

Dazel's approach "centrally controls and manages destinations," whether to printer, fax, e-mail, pager or file server.

It also offers a "server-side" architecture that can manage printers on AIX, HP-UX, Sun Solaris, Sun OS and other operating systems.

Even from what few successful examples are available now, it seems that well-managed distributed print services have a lot to offer and could contribute much to agency efforts to cut IT costs.

But it's also true that only in the past several years have both the commercial world and government begun to give distributed printing the attention it deserves, and the delay may mean federal users face sizable headaches before they find relief from their printing troubles.

Adams is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C.

At A Glance

Status: Agencies are increasingly aware of the need for distributed printing but are just beginning to tackle the problems associated with it.

Issues: Problems with legacy systems and network connections often lead to solutions with proprietary twists.

Outlook: Good. Demand for distributed printing will only grow, and agencies that deploy solutions successfully can expect big savings.

Featured

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.