Solving The Cross-Platform Virtual Printing Puzzle

Virtual Printer

The responsibilities of IT departments and working in IT networks have become varied. In addition to the classic Windows desktop environment, there are a multitude of workers that access desktops remotely and virtually. The number of solution providers has increased just as the application scenarios and devices used has grown. Whether physical or virtual desktops, tablets, laptops, thin clients or zero clients: all of these devices are used to access Remote Desktop Session Hosts (RDSH = former Terminal Server) or virtual desktop infrastructures – and should be able to print.

A reliable solution for printing is not only important to guarantee user productivity but also necessary to avoid high costs in administration, particularly to reduce the help desk support required in relation to printing. Sometimes printing can put desktop projects at risk altogether. If one does not care for, it causes bandwidth and performance problems, a bad user experience and acceptance as well as a lot of helpdesk calls and maintenance work that burdens the IT department. The sooner the print challenges are taken into account in a project, the more versatile the options, and the easier the solution.

Print Challenges In Remote & Virtual Environments

There are many aspects to printing. One example being printer mapping, which should guarantee that each user gets the right printer for their session and identifies where users currently are, and how best to connect them to desired printers from/to their destination. Another example is security for printing. Printing is a business-critical process, not only in respect of availability but also because of data confidentiality, where pull printing and print job encryption is necessary all the way to the printer. However, the most common and popular printing challenges continue to be: printer driver issues and printing workloads.

Printer Driver Issues

Even the most professional virtual desktop environment will fail in its objective if the drivers of all printers have to be installed using the “golden image.” The golden image – a template for a virtual machine (VM), virtual desktop, server or hard disk drive – is used as a pattern for different users and user groups. It is used to save time and work.

The size of a printer driver is a two-digit megabyte (MB) figure on average. Often several-hundred printer drivers are used within an organisation and a variety of printer makes and models. More importantly, incompatibilities associated with printer drivers with RDSH desktop technology still occur more often than users would like. The freezing of sessions is rarely a problem these days, however, reliable printing is still not delivered resulting in wrong print results or sometimes no print out at all.

Another challenge is that most companies lack a homogenous infrastructure. In addition to different Windows versions (different printer drivers are for example required for 32- and 64-bit), Macs, thin clients and increasingly tablets with alternative operating systems are used. Many of these devices do not support the installation of local printer drivers. To solve these challenges, intelligent printer driver management is necessary to guarantee flexible and reliable printing in remote/virtual desktop environments.

Workload Of Printing

The print process takes all resources it can get, which is normally not an issue on physical desktops, but on RDSH and virtual desktops, resources are shared amongst users. Print data becomes extensive during processing and can easily compete with multi-media data in terms of volume. When for example a 1MB PDF file is printed, a print file far in excess of 100MB soon materialises, particularly in environments where the print job is started in a different location to where the printer is located.

This creates special challenges, as large amounts of data must be transferred across the network. The results are slow printing and bandwidth problems, causing negative effects for the whole session and potentially other users, particularly if several users are printing documents at the same time. Print compression is therefore very important. The size of a print job depends on many different factors, such as the printing application, the printer driver and the individual components of the document.

An optimal compression takes the different components of a print job in to account differently and adjusts compression rates to the available bandwidth. Also, it is useful to be able to define a maximum bandwidth taken up by printing per connection, no matter how many users print for example from a certain location.

Solution Approach I: Universal drivers

To solve these challenges, the makers of virtual desktops primarily concentrate on driver standardization. Universal printer drivers are being used to make installing native drivers on RDSH unnecessary. The first recommendation in this respect is to check if these universal drivers cover printers of all manufacturers and include special print options they want to use, such as duplex, stapling, whole punch and n-Up, which allows printing of two, or four, or more pages on a single sheet of paper.

Also checks to be made in terms of font issues, for example if there are special corporate fonts in use such as Symbol, or other exotic fonts, otherwise the use of native drivers becomes necessary again. Universal printer drivers do not necessarily include performance tuning for print jobs, which is a requirement if the remote/virtual desktop is running in a different location away from the printer.

Another important implication of most universal driver concepts is that the native printer drivers need to be installed on the client hardware machine, but with the use of Thin/Zero clients and many mobile devices this is not an option at all. With large drivers of versatile MFPs this is also not the first choice on “fat” clients. Thus, at the end the drivers are installed on the servers and the virtual desktop again and for those all performance tuning that universal drivers offer often do not apply.

In other scenarios, the same printer sometimes is used not only in session but also for local applications on physical desktops. Some vendors even use several universal drivers in different scenarios. This creates another problem, primarily for the end users: changing print dialog windows for the same printer. It is difficult to explain to the user why the print dialog window from the local application looks different from, for example, the one in the terminal session, or why the virtual desktop lacks print options that are a given on a local PC.

Checklist Universal Printer Drivers

Look for a solution that supports:

  • All your existing printers.
  • Finishing options for all of those.
  • Printers connected to Thin/ZeroClients.
  • Best possible compression.
  • Print job streaming for fast time to print and other performance tuning features.
  • Bandwidth control per location/connection.
  • Special fonts.
  • Supports mixed 32/64 bit scenarios.

The recommendation here is to look for a print management solution that fits into the different client scenarios that can keep RDSH as well as both virtual and physical desktops free of native drivers and support as many print features as possible.

Solution Approach II: Print Servers

Organisations use print servers as best practice for their network printing. This concept also has many advantages for RDSH and virtual desktops. Installation of print drivers is automated via Point and Print and organisations get reliable print job processing including prioritisation and an overview of printer queues, which simplifies support and performance monitoring, Furthermore, there is high reliability during cluster operation and easier disaster recovery.

Processor-intensive spooling is taken care of by the print server. This eases workload on the virtual desktops and RDSH, freeing up capacity for other operations. Choosing to acquire a central print server often pays off for businesses with ten or more printers, as companies can reduce costs for maintenance and configuration.

However there are severe disadvantages of using print servers in remote/virtual desktop projects: The print server is usually not located next to the printer, so the big print jobs cause a real challenge again. Also print jobs are delivered via TCP/IP, which can cause problems in delivering print jobs to small/home offices and to mobile users. Although the download of native printer drivers to RDSH and virtual desktops is automated, they end up being used again, causing incompatibility issues with RDSH/virtual desktop technology, which results again in less than satisfactory print results or no print out at all.

Another consideration of many organisations is print server consolidation. Print servers are often amongst the last servers on smaller sites and organisations look for solutions to get rid of them. A perfect solution for all of these challenges is one that offloads printing as much as possible from RDSH and virtual desktops by leveraging the advantages of a centralised print server. This helps avoid the need for print servers everywhere as well as the negative effect of data overhead from travelling print data.

Such a solution can be used for regular “fat client” printing and remote/virtual desktop printing at the same time and thus prevents silo solutions that increase cost, administration, and the need for help desk support. In respect to cloud migration and disaster recovery an ideal solution additionally offers tools for fast creation of print server(s) with all printer drivers and settings.

Checklist Print Servers

Look for a print management solution that:

  • Avoids even the automated download of printer drivers to RDSH and virtual desktops.
  • Installs and manages printer drivers only on the central print server.
  • Can compress print data on all connections – from physical and virtual desktop to the print server and from there to the printer.
  • Can compress print data also when using native printer drivers on the print server.
  • Doesn’t need local print servers in office locations.
  • Handles printer mapping for local and network printers using local and remote/virtual applications.
  • Can process print jobs on the print server but (in addition to TCP/IP) deliver these through the virtual channel.
  • Applies performance tuning to the different virtual protocols (for example RDP, ICA/HDX, TCPoIP) as well as TCP/IP.
  • Provides a management tool for print server setup, cloud migration and disaster recovery.
  • Gives full independence of printer manufacturers.

For over 15 years Thorsten Hesse has worked in a variety of IT positions including marketing, product management and sales, and has been based across the world in Berlin, New Orleans and Sydney. Over the last 10 years Hesse has been part of the Cortado team, as a member of the management board and now product manager for the company’s ThinPrint product line.