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Connecting With Clustered Printing

4 Jun, 2001 By: Joel Mazza imageSource

Connecting With Clustered Printing

In new and growing industries, opportunities often arise where pre-existing technology can be leveraged in a new way to overcome challenges that would otherwise require a complex and expensive solution. Where a cost-effective solution does not exist, an opportunity for an innovative product does. As market needs arise, customers and developers see the best solution at a given time using the most cost-effective technology available. Cluster printing represents such a concept.

A cluster printing system consists of at least two output devices that are capable of working on the same print job simultaneously as though the devices were a single printer. Under its broadest definition, cluster printing is a powerful front-end system driving multiple devices as if they were a single comprehensive printer.

The “single comprehensive printer” may be divided conceptually into multiple “virtual” printers, meaning that the front-end system treats the multiple output devices as a unit, splitting jobs between the output devices as necessary. For example, it would consider four 24-ppm black and white printers as a single 96-ppm engine with the capability to print a given job at 96 ppm, or, two separate jobs at 48 ppm and so on.

A cluster printing system must have at least two output devices that are capable of working on the same print job simultaneously as though the devices were a single printer. For example, many color servers offer the ability to drive two output devices simultaneously, (i.e., a digital color copier/printer and a large-format color printer, or two digital color copier/printers). However, unless the color server is able to split jobs between the two devices, it would not be considered a cluster solution.

An Evolving Concept

The definition of cluster printing is evolving as new products are introduced from an increasing number of vendors. These products are broadening the application of cluster printing, creating cluster systems that could potentially cluster groups of printers from across an entire enterprise.

At their inception, cluster-printing systems, initially developed by T/R Systems, used low-cost laser printer technology to fulfill certain needs within the mid-range market for on-demand printing. These low-cost printers, when clustered, provided an alternative solution at a time when few, if any, cost-effective products existed below the price and speed of the Xerox DocuTech. As cluster systems have taken hold in the market, this concept has matured.

The initial implementations of cluster printing have evolved and expanded since T/R Systems introduced its first MicroPress in 1995. The key benefits of cluster printing include:

· Throughput comparable to higher speed and more expensive systems.

· Modular architecture.

· Fault tolerant printing through redundancy of engines.

The initial concept and function of cluster printing is now being superseded by an overall vision of document management and workflow across multiple printers. In its original form, cluster printing was a product unto itself. It was well defined and represented by only a few variations. Today, this function is part of a robust feature set that many digital front-end systems leverage to manage and drive a total production printing system consisting of multiple printers.

The Players

T/R Systems and Advanced High-Tech (AHT) represent the two most frequently mentioned names in the development and marketing of cluster printing solutions, with T/R Systems accounting for most systems shipped since 1995.

T/R Systems introduced the first cluster-printing product to address the high price of traditional production printing systems, such as the Xerox DocuTech. T/R’s first clustered product, the MicroPress included a powerful front-end system connected to multiple 3-ppm color/12-ppm black and white laser printers. Over time, T/R added support for additional output devices, digital make-ready features and scanning. Since the introduction of the first MicroPress, the list of supported mid-range print engines has grown, enhancing the value and flexibility of the MicroPress product line.

The cluster printing market has changed fundamentally since 1995. For one, more vendors are selling cluster solutions. In 1999 and 2000, several vendors, including Canon, Hitachi Koki Imaging Systems, IKON, Lanier, Minolta, Ricoh and Toshiba introduced monochrome cluster systems. At the same time, T/R Systems, AHT and Konica Business Technology have continued to expand on the cluster printing functionality that is currently built into their product lines.

EFI’s (Electronics for Imaging) recent entrance into the market brings a large player that could potentially change the competitive balance. EFI has an opportunity to expand the cluster printing market with its recent release of Velocity Balance. The company has a strong network of OEM partners and distributors and a large installed base of Fiery servers to target with this new product.

Fortifying The Front End

Cluster printing is clearly an application of a front-end system. In certain environments, clustering may only be used on an as-needed basis to meet peak production needs. Some features of a cluster printing system (consistent graphical user interface, support for multiple devices, ease of reprint) are important even if clustering, load balancing and job splitting aren’t implemented. This has led some vendors to position their systems as universal front ends.

Continued advancements in computing power are making it more feasible for a single front-end system to manage entire groups of printers without creating bottlenecks in the production system. A common front-end provides all of the features necessary to maximize every connected engine in a given system. Such a front-end could be responsible for color and black and white devices, as well as mixed data streams from legacy databases.

Each printing application will also have specific requirements that need to be addressed by the common controller. This requires an efficient user interface and a computing platform with robust multitasking capabilities for simultaneously managing the different applications. To be productive, a single front-end must be able to productively manage complex print requests, such as variable data applications while still tending to other applications like accurate printing of color covers. This concept further illustrates cluster printing’s evolution.

Niche Markets And New Opportunities

To date, clustered printing systems have found their greatest success in production environments. In these environments, faster digital copier-printers with speeds of 80-ppm and higher will begin to displace mid-range devices with speeds below 60 ppm. However, vendors aren’t limiting themselves to production environments. Now, with new products like T/R System’s Maestro and EFI’s Velocity Balance, enabling cluster printing from across a network, vendors are looking at the possibility of introducing the clustered concept for general office printing.

Penetrating the mainstream office has its challenges. In corporate environments, users are not dedicated operators. This means the interface and feedback menus must be simple to use and follow. Meanwhile, the feature set must appeal to IT managers who must be convinced of cluster printing’s value.

Unlike production environments where output devices are usually located near one another, in corporate environments, devices may be anywhere in an organization. As a result, the clustered solution would need to intuitively guide users to the location (or locations) of their printed jobs, which may be split across multiple devices and output trays.

Selling this type of cluster product also presents a challenge to the existing distribution channels of cluster vendors. The ideal distribution channel for such a product would likely be a company with software and network experience, rather than a company accustomed to copier and printer sales. Indirect distribution may also play a key role.

Final Impact

What is the true impact of cluster printing? It has caused vendors and users to look at the true requirements of a printing system. Customers are looking for flexible solutions that address print speed, system price, redundancy, target print volume, ease of use, operator training and workflow issues. Meanwhile, cluster systems have been an important factor in reminding vendors that flexibility is important and one of they ways to address this issue is with cluster systems.

Writers Disclaimer


Joel Mazza is a consultant for CAP Ventures, Converging Digital Peripherals Service Division. CAP Ventures is a strategic consulting firm for providers and users of digital business communication technologies and services. CAP Ventures provide knowledge and business strategies through timely research, analysis, forecasting, benchmarking, counsel, market education and implementation. For more on CAP Ventures, visit www.capv.com.

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