By Gerry Blackwell
January 16, 2004
Print servers are the latest thing for small offices and home offices. Wireless print servers that use 802.11b (Wi-Fi) technology are cutting edge. Do you need one? It depends.
If you have more than one computer that needs to share a single printer, or several computers that need to share a few printers, print servers are certainly one solution. They may be the best solution since they typically offer the fastest printing speeds.
Wireless print servers make particularly good sense if you need flexibility in where you place the printer or printers.
Say you have a small suite with three offices and a common area, and you want the users in the three offices to be able to share a single printer. It would make sense to place the printer in the common area so users don’t have to troop into a colleague’s office to retrieve print jobs.
To set up a network for this kind of sharing without a print server would be difficult or impossible.
If you already have a wireless local area network (WLAN) in place, it naturally makes sense to leverage it by using a wireless print server rather than one connected to the network by Ethernet cable. For one thing, the requirement to run wires puts constraints on where you place the server, printer and network hub.
If you decide, based on this simple needs analysis, that you do need a wireless print server, consider one of the new ‘EZ Connect ‘ models from SMC Networks (They’re identical except one is for Parallel Port printers and one for USB printers, models MC2621W-P and SMC2621W-U, respectively).
They support Windows 95, 98, Me, NT, 2000, XP, Macintosh, Unix and Linux operating systems, and transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP), service message block (SMB), AppleTalk (EtherTalk), and net bios extended user interface (NetBEUI) network protocols. They also, for what it’s worth, support 64/128-bit wired equivalent privacy (WEP), the compromised 802.11 encryption scheme.
The SMC servers work well. Set up is relatively easy (though not completely trouble free in our experience.) And they don’t cost a lot — manufacturer’s suggested retail is $130 each — but almost certainly available for less on the street.
There are alternative solutions, of course. A printer is usually directly connected to a single computer. If that computer is then connected to a network, it may be possible for other computers on the network to print over the network to it.
But setting up printers and computers for this kind of sharing is often tricky, and in some cases impossible if the printer’s software doesn’t support network printing.
Print Problem Solver
Printing to a network printer is usually also noticeably slower than printing to a directly connected printer. And because printing does use some computing resources, network printing can slow down the computer the printer is connected to when a network user is running a job.
Print servers solve these problems. You connect them, either by Ethernet cable or wirelessly, to a network hub or router, and then connect a printer directly to the server.
On each computer in your network, you set the server printer up as a local printer. When a computer prints to it, it’s as if it’s printing to a directly connected printer.
Print speeds rival or — vendors say — surpass printing to a directly connected printer.
Our first attempt at setting up the Parallel Port SMC Wireless Print Driver ran into fairly typical installation-configuration problems. The hardcopy documentation is sketchy and onscreen prompts sometimes ambiguous.
In the end, it took two lengthy technical support calls, about two hours of off-and-on effort altogether, to get the unit set up and working properly.
The good news is that SMC provides a toll-free support line which was answered promptly, and the tech support agents were patient and methodical, if perhaps not as familiar with the product as they might be. In their defense, it is a new product.
Getting the print server itself to work and configuring it was relatively simple. In fact, if the network includes a dynamic host configuration protocol (DHCP) server — as many wireless router-based networks like mine do — server configuration is ‘plug and play’ or automatic.
You do need to configure each client device, each computer on the network that will use the printer, installing and configuring the printer software. That’s where we ran into difficulty temporarily.
The printer we attached to the server was previously attached to one of the network computers. In the past, it could take up to 30 seconds for network print jobs to spool — to be added to buffer memory on the host computer and then processed.
With the print server set up and working properly over the wireless network, it takes a few seconds for print jobs to start. Once started, of course, print speed is a function of the speed of the connection between printer and server and the speed of the printer itself.
Improv at the Printer
For most users, that’s about all that needs to be said about the SMC Wireless Print Servers. They perform a very specific and limited function, and do it well. These products do have some advanced features, however.
For starters, they will work wirelessly in both infrastructure mode — where you have a wireless router and all the wirelessly-connected computers connect through it, as in most wireless networks — and also in ad hoc mode.
With ad hoc mode, you don’t need an access point or wireless router. All you need is a bunch of computers with wireless network access cards configured for ad hoc networking. With the wireless network server also set up for ad hoc mode, any properly configured wireless computer within range can send jobs to it.
This could be useful if you’re working with a small mobile team — financial auditors that go into a client’s premises and set up in a spare office or boardroom, for example. You could carry a small printer attached to an SMC print server and all members of the team could use it, even if they weren’t all working in the same room.
Or you could use it to set up a printer for use in meetings where all or some of the participants have Wi-Fi-enabled computers.
The SMC Wireless Print Servers also support Internet printing protocol (IPP) and Internet mail printing, two methods for enabling remote printing over the Internet.
IPP is a new-ish standard for Internet printing. The SMC server functions as an IPP server. The remote computer must be set up with an IPP client — Windows XP comes with an IPP client, SMC supplies clients for other IPP compatible operating systems (Win98/ME/NT).
You configure the client to print directly to the IPP server (the SMC print server) by adding a new printer in Windows with a name that incorporates the server’s IP address and the network port number IPP uses. An IP address is the four-part code that IP networks assign to each connected device.
Note that this won’t work if your Internet service provider issues you only one IP address and you share access on your LAN using network address translation (NAT). This is the way many small office/home office wireless networks operate — including mine.
You can, however, set up IPP printing within your local area network — though there’s not much point in a small office. I did this just to test the product. It was easy to set up and IPP printing worked very well. I could not test printing to the printer from outside my LAN, from the public Internet.
With Internet Mail Printing, you set up a mail account for the print server, complete with password, and users send e-mails to it, which the server automatically prints.
To set up the SMC server you must know the IP address of your incoming e-mail server. If like most small businesses you use an outside service provider for e-mail services, you’ll have to ask that company for the IP address, which you enter in the SMC set-up utility.
These are intriguing functions, but one wonders how often small business users would need them. Perhaps if you were working remotely and needed to print an important document on the laser printer back at the office for somebody else to present in a client meeting.