Remote printing over the Net

Remote printing over the Net

From the early days of computers, there has been a need to print jobs at a remote location. For example, many companies have the need to print sales order acknowledgments from the home office computer in Sydney at a branch office in, say, Perth.

Until now, such remote printing could be quite expensive and complex, particularly when international communications were required. However, with the advent of the Internet, which provides very low-cost worldwide communications, there is now a practical way to handle remote printing applications simply and economically, using the Internet as the transport mechanism.

Many larger organisations currently connect LANs at different locations via high-speed routers or bridges, typically in conjunction with dedicated leased lines. Remote printing traffic can then share the dedicated leased line along with computer-to-computer communications and other traffic.

From a software point of view, this basically makes the entire network look like a single LAN. This is an extension of the well-established, dedicated leased line approach, with the major difference being that the leased line is connected to the LAN rather than to a single host computer.

Since there is a single logical LAN, devices at either site can share the same resources as other printers anywhere on the extended network, assuming they have the appropriate privileges.

The process is further simplified by directory services such as Novell's Novell Directory Services (NDS), Banyan StreetTalk, and the new Lightweight Distributed Access Protocol (LDAP), since they allow printers to be accessed anywhere on the network without regard to physical location or which file server the printer is attached to.

However, an extended LAN requires a significant amount of time from the network manager for setup and maintenance, and it is not well-suited for applications that require communications between two different companies.

Print via mail

The latest way to handle remote printing is to use Internet e-mail technology. In this approach, the sending PC is configured with a special software driver that converts print jobs into e-mail messages. At the receiving end, the printer is equipped with a print server that has special firmware for receiving e-mail print jobs. The printing process is transparent to the user and to the application programs, so no special procedures or training is required.

The e-mail printing software installation program creates a virtual port on the PC. This port looks to the operating system software like a standard PC port (for example, LPT1).

The user then prints a job to this printer in the normal manner from his application program.

The job is then sent from the application program to the printer driver and then to the virtual port. The virtual port software takes the print job, MIME encodes it (MIME is the standard for encoding e-mail attachments on the Internet), puts the appropriate headers on it, and sends it out to the local gateway as an e-mail message, transparently with no need to configure additional protocol support (that is, there is no need to add TCP/IP support on the PC).

The e-mail server at the receiving end then receives the print job and processes it as a normal e-mail message. The receiving print server then retrieves the message from the server using the POP3 (Post Office Protocol 3) and TCP/IP protocols, decodes the attachment, and prints it out on the printer. When the job has been printed, the receiving print server can optionally send an acknowledgment e-mail back to the sender using SMTP and TCP/IP.

An application for such a dial-up ISP connection would be a laptop user in the field sending documents back to the home office for review. For example, a salesperson could send a print job from his hotel room in Darwin to the corporate office in Melbourne using a dial-up ISP connection.

Internet e-mail remote printing has many advantages compared to other methods.

Transmission costs are invariably less, simply because Internet access costs are extremely low, and there are no incremental charges based on distance.

It eliminates the need for the network manager to configure the remote printer. With conventional extended LANs, the network manager (or a user with privileges) must configure the remote printers, since this would normally involve configuring the name server or hosts file, and configuring print queues on the file server. With the e-mail approach, any user can easily send jobs to remote printers, with little or no network manager involvement required in most cases.

It simplifies communications between two companies because, whereas an extended LAN or dedicated leased line may be practical within a given company, such approaches will not usually work if two different companies are involved.

If there are any problems with the receiving printers, the message is simply stored until the printer is available. And any problems with Internet firewalls are eliminated since e-mail messages pass through most firewalls with no special configuration required.

In the graphics design field, remote printing over the Internet is of particular value. There is often a need to send a pre-production version of a concept (for example, a mock-up of an advertisement or catalogue) to a customer for urgent approval. In the past, this was difficult because most shipments, especially interstate, require at least one day. And if a customer wants to make changes to the proof, such shipments could waste several days.

All the above is not "blue-sky" - the technology is thoroughly proved and is available today from Australian companies such as ours.

Obviously, the Internet e-mail remote printing concept will be useful in any organisation where it is necessary to print from one location to another. If leased or dial-up lines are being used exclusively for printing, replacing them with the Internet e-mail remote printing approach is a "no-contest" proposition. The cost of Internet access is so low that the payback is very quick, especially when printing to international locations.

I see remote printing applications being handled in the future by either the extended LAN approach or by Internet-based methods like Internet e-mail and IPP-based remote printing. Each has benefits and drawbacks, so it is likely that all three methods will thrive during the coming years. On the other hand, the use of dedicated leased lines and dial-up lines for printing applications should decline sharply due to their cost disadvantages.

In essence, this practical use of the Internet offers real cost and operational savings, and with the advent of electronic commerce over the Net, I can really see it living up to its promise and becoming a useful commercial tool rather than merely a home-hobbyist's playground.

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