Offering managed printing services involves much more than simply providing toner refills. It's a whole package...
of offerings, from the printer to the print servers to the network infrastructure. The tangibles though, including the specific pieces you provide to your client, are not as obvious as they might seem. Here's a quick rundown of the kinds of printer hardware and software to provide as part of a managed printing service package.
Network-attached printing devices
Obviously the core of any printing service package is the printers themselves. Regardless of the devices,
Note that if network-attached printing isn't already available in the client's workspace, you have two options: Retrofit the existing printers with a network print server or simply replace the existing printers with network-capable ones. It's usually cheaper to retrofit than replace; a mini print server, such as Netgear's PS101, generally runs about $69 retail, but if the cost of retrofitting five printers is about the same as replacing them all with one printer that can handle their workload, replacing them is a better bargain. This is especially true if you think of the cost of a printer as an asset over time. See this article in Image Source Magazine on managed printing services. Thinking of a printer as an asset works for both big and small companies, albeit in different ways.
Print servers allow you to set up an environment where existing printers that don't already have network connectivity can be shared. Many print servers are now available as consumer-level devices made by vendors including Linksys and NetGear, as part of a wired/wireless network switch, but consumer-grade hardware tends to give you consumer-grade results. Another print server option is a low-profile machine that's built only to host print jobs, which could be made for example by pressing a retired workstation into service. A third option is to add print serving as a new function to an existing, underutilized server somewhere in the client's environment -- a file server, for instance.
Wired vs. wireless networks
If the client has a choice between wired and wirelesss networks, consider two things, either of which may bias the client toward wired networking.
1. Security: If a client is using an older wireless protocol, such as WEP, an upgrade may be in order since insufficient security may affect everything -- not just printing.
2. Speed: 802.11g networks may claim an optimum speed of 54 megabits per second, but in practical usage it's more like 5 megabits -- a tiny fraction of a 100-megabit wired network's speed. For small organizations, this may not be as much of an issue, but for places with dozens of seats that send multi-megabyte print jobs, it's definitely a bottleneck. If your client already has a wired network, use it. If they already use or want wireless, figure out the scenario and see if going wireless will add convenience or turn into a bottleneck waiting to happen.
Printing software doesn't seem like an immediate consideration, but how else can you track the client's usage of consumables (paper, toner, ink, maybe even envelopes and staples) and printing habits? Because you're offering all this as a service, it's critical that you make sense of their usage and not depend solely on the client's self-reporting, which is often worse than having no statistics at all. You may over bill or miss important aspects of the customer's usage that he himself doesn't notice.
The most common package for tracking printer usage is probably PaperCut, which exists in three separate implementations: NG, for people doing their own print administration in a large network; Quota, an extremely simplified version of PaperCut for little more than managing print quotas in small LAN environments; and ChargeBack, which includes account-based charging and statistical aggregation for business reports. ChargeBack also exists in implementations for Windows, Mac and Linux, so no matter what the network environment is you should be able to deploy a version of PaperCut.
Repurposing existing hardware
One possible service you can offer a small-scale customer, if it's needed, is repurposing existing non-networked printers to work in a networked environment. This could be done by taking existing USB-connected print devices and making them flexibly available to all machines on the network by connecting them to a low-profile network printing appliance -- something created by the manufacturer that's specific to that printer, or a mini-form-factor PC running some breed of Linux with print services and the proper driver installed. The latter approach is useful if the printer in question doesn't use a standard wire protocol and can't be hosted on a dedicated printing device. You can "publish" the printer to the network as a standard PostScript device with the appliance translating PostScript into something the printer understands natively. This not only works to make a less-versatile printer more useful, but can also extend the lifetime of an existing printer that's perfectly good but no longer explicitly supported by the manufacturer.
In the long run, however, it's probably cheaper to replace such printers than to keep them running with the Band-Aid described above. It's time to replace the printer when it's creating a severe bottleneck and doesn't meet the existing printing demands. Most printing bottlenecks take place at the printer, not the print queue or in the network, so the print devices themselves should be the first considered for replacement. Back up an argument to replace with hard numbers whenever you can.
Multifunction print devices
Don't limit yourself to just offering printing services. See if your customer wants scanning across the network or scan-and-fax capabilities. However, don't offer those services in a way that's actually a step backward. For instance, if you have a scanner that has no sheet feeder, it's going to be virtually useless as a scan-to-fax device unless it's possible to upgrade or replace it. If faxing is only an adjunct of what they do, but is hard to work around, consider setting them up with a service like eFax; for $16.95 they can receive 130 pages and send 30 pages a month, and no dedicated fax machine is needed, just a modem. A scanner might be needed to sign and rescan documents, however.
About the author: Serdar Yegulalp is editor of the Windows Power Users Newsletter, which is devoted to hints, tips, tricks, news and goodies for Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Windows XP users and administrators. He has more than 10 years of Windows experience under his belt, and contributes regularly to SearchWinComputing.com and SearchSQLServer.com.