Many aspects of the modern business have become paperless, using electronic workflows and stored data to conduct everyday business operations, but the printing tasks that remain are more vital than ever for tasks such as product packaging, shipping documents and producing quality business media on demand.
In addition, many printers provide other services such as copying and scanning. Many businesses still maintain an assorted fleet of varied printers, and organizations must monitor and manage those printers -- with their individual services -- just like any other business IT asset. This is the fundamental role of printer management software (PMS).
Printer management basics
In simplest terms, printer management software is a type of tool that provides centralized administration of an organization's printer fleet. PMS can support a wide range of features and functionality for many types of print devices, including physical and virtual desktop printers, copiers, scanners, and industrial-scale, high-volume and high-definition printers. Typical PMS features include the following:
- Monitor printer status. Administrators can see which printers are available, which printers are busy and idle, which need paper or media, and which require attention or corrective service.
- Use authentication and authorization. This basically treats printer capabilities -- monochrome printing, color printing, copying and scanning -- as business services and enables administrators to govern which employees can use certain capabilities of specific printers.
- Track usage. The software can keep track of printing volume for each printer, identifying printers with heavier utilization and helping plan for printer service or upgrades.
- Impose limits or quotas. PMS can limit printer usage to limit costs, improve printer availability for busy printers, or conserve paper and media.
- Support chargeback. Some PMS can support chargeback, which basically assigns and recovers print costs from responsible departments or business units.
- Produce reports. The software can translate fleet management details into reports that can guide managers in handling print costs.
IT administrators typically install PMS on a management computer or an IT-managed print server. The software then oversees printers installed across the organization's local network. Printers may be connected to the LAN directly using either wired or wireless connectivity. Printers may also be connected through endpoint computers, which are connected to the LAN, though a driver or agent may be needed on those connected computers.
PMS tools cite numerous business benefits that can usually support environmental, regulatory and security initiatives.
Businesses increasingly seek opportunities to shrink waste and reduce carbon emissions. Centrally managed printing can impose authentication and limits that help to reduce the use of paper, toner, ink and power across the organization. Such efforts can usually complement other environmental or green initiatives across the business.
PMS tools can usually support printing policies across the enterprise or offer efficient alternatives for specific job types. For example, a large job might be routed to a high-volume printer, and text-only print jobs might enforce two-sided output to save paper.
Security and confidentiality are increasingly important and even required for many businesses. PMS can apply security measures, such as printing approval requirements, where managers must approve print jobs, or "find me" printing, where jobs are posted to a virtual queue and printing is routed to the closest device to that user. In addition, the job may be held pending the user's arrival and release of the job at the intended device, ensuring that only the intended user can print and collect the document.
Understand print service usage
The monitoring and reporting capabilities of many PMS packages enable comprehensive oversight and management of printing, copying, scanning and faxing tasks. This helps managers to understand how print-related services are used across the business and how those services can be improved. This might include adding high-capacity printers to high-volume locations in the business or examining ways to reduce print usage for nonessential tasks, such as using PDFs rather than printed documents.
Some PMS tools support clustering at the print spooler or application server, allowing redundancy in the print queue and failover with problem printers.
Is free printer management software (freeware) comprehensive enough for the enterprise?
Freeware can be useful in testing and evaluation. The notion of "try before you buy" is a longstanding practice in the shareware community and has provided alternatives for testing and evaluating enterprise software before a financial commitment is required. But free software is rarely adequate for enterprise-class use. In general, free software comes with one or more limitations, which can include the following.
Free PMS is typically fully functional but only for a specific period of time -- usually 30-40 days from registration. These are usually demo versions intended specifically for testing and evaluation. Once the free period expires, the software becomes partially or completely nonfunctional until the administrators purchase a suitable license through the developer or vendor.
Software that supports free usage may restrict one or more enterprise-class features or limit integrations with other enterprise management tools. For example, printer management software may restrict the number of print jobs at its free level, effectively limiting the number of printers or users that can use the software at the same time. As another example, free software might not provide print usage dashboards for individual users, but a paid license would unlock those capabilities. Paid licenses usually enable restricted features. If the restricted features are not needed by the enterprise --perhaps a small business -- then the free software may be suitable to the task.
Free printer management software may limit the number or types of printers that are supported. For example, a printer vendor may release a free high-quality printer management tool, but the tool only supports that vendor's printer families and may not support printers from other vendors. If the business is fully committed to that vendor's printers, the free tool may be more than adequate for the task. As another example, the free software might only support printing to a limited number of printers, requiring a license to lift restrictions.
Open source software presents an unusual case where software is released free under a selected open source license, including several GNU project architectures. The trick here is to understand the license terms and restrictions. For example, the free software may be fully functional, but the license might prohibit its use in commercial environments. Regardless of the license restrictions, open source software may be more challenging to install, and it carries no support other than existing documentation and community messaging. Some open source products may allow users to pay for support, but the fee is for support and not the product itself.
Selecting a viable printer management freeware option
Taken together, printer management freeware may be adequate for some SMBs with a small number of users and printers but is rarely suited to enterprise-class environments. Most organizations will find value in a paid license to overcome feature or capacity limits. The goal is to understand where the limitations are and decide whether those limitations are acceptable for the organization. If not, take a pass on the freeware, or plan on budgeting for a paid license. But see for yourself. Consider the following three printer management freeware products or services.
PaperCut NG is one of several printer management products from PaperCut. The product offers a full suite of printer management capabilities for environments ranging from home offices and small organizations to enterprises. PaperCut products can handle many of the tasks expected from a full-featured printer manager, including the following:
- print monitoring and logging;
- assigning quotas and limits to individuals or teams;
- setting policies on print usage, such as printing in monochrome or gray scale wherever possible;
- comprehensive reporting;
- "find me" printing capability, directing a print queue to the closest printer;
- print cost allocation and chargeback; and
- supporting mobile and BYOD printing.
PaperCut NG offers two free options for commercial businesses. There is a 40-day free trial -- try before you buy -- enabling enterprise organizations to test and evaluate the product. There is also a free license level for up to five users, which makes the software free for small or home businesses. The product is fully functional and does not require licensing to unlock any features. Licenses are due after the 40-day free trial and consist of a single, one-time cost. The licenses are based on the number of users. Large organizations with enormous numbers of users can request a license quote.
OP Cloud is a printer management offering from Fitosoft, a vendor based in Vancouver, B.C. It's a SaaS product that runs as a web-based application to manage printing across SMBs. The only setup required is that IT must install a cloud connector driver on the organization's print server. This tool offers a variety of management features found in enterprise-class printer management software, including the following:
- tracking all printing activity and print jobs;
- applying printing quotas and restrictions;
- premium version supports an unlimited number of users, printers, computers and print servers; and
- comprehensive monitoring and reporting.
OP Cloud is available in three pricing levels. As a SaaS offering, pricing involves a monthly subscription rather than a licensing fee. The Basic subscription is free but is limited to a single connector and can spool up to 500 print jobs -- Basic also allows a 40-day unlimited trial of the full version. The Standard subscription is $9 per month and supports up to five connectors and 50,000 print jobs. Support is also included. The Premium subscription is $19 per month and enables unlimited connectors, unlimited print jobs, user dashboards and support.
SavaPage is open source printer management software from Datraverse B.V. in the Netherlands. The software is designed to employ open standards and commodity hardware to support a full-featured and extensible print management platform. IT admins have to implement SavaPage as a print server on GNU Linux, and it is suited for any device that supports Internet Printing Protocol, IP Printing -- Jetdirect -- or AirPrint. In practice, SavaPage creates a central print portal where documents are queued and routed to various printers across the organization. SavaPage offers an assortment of benefits, including the following:
- simple configuration requirements;
- light administration, providing a single print server for the entire organization;
- "follow me" and delegated printing support;
- pay-per-print support;
- printing conservation prompts and policies;
- cost and resource monitoring and reporting;
- simplifying and reducing printing requirements by removing unnecessary pages and graphics; and
- extensible and highly configurable open source platform.
SavaPage is truly free as open source software and is provided under the GNU Affero General Public License. However, guidance and support for SavaPage may be limited to the product's manual and open source community. Businesses considering SavaPage should pay particular attention to any rules or restrictions related to the GNU license.
How to select printer management software
Organizations should select printer management freeware with the same approach as with any vital enterprise-class software. Stakeholders should identify the features and functionality needed for the tool, and administrators should evaluate potential products against those needs. They also have to evaluate its performance, integration with other enterprise management software and costs, i.e., free versus paid capabilities. The evaluation process usually includes comprehensive testing and proof-of-principle projects to validate the behavior and usability of the PMS tool before committing to adoption.