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An External Print Server: NetGear's PS110
By Thiravudh Khoman

Note: This piece is a logical continuation of my Internet Sharing Solutions, Part 6 article (indeed, it assumes you've read it). Given its length, I decided not to put it into Part 6's "Update Notes", and because it has nothing to do with internet sharing, it didn't qualify as a Part 7. It's a topic I've never covered before, so I decided to let it stand on its own.

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This week-end, I added a third box to my home network: a print server. I knew I would get one sooner or later since at home in Thailand I have two printers: a colour inkjet printer for the kids and a laser printer for the adults. Not only does a print server make it possible for EVERYONE to print to ANY printer, it also eliminates the hassle of having to turn on the computer with the printer attached, not to mention reducing the load on the host computer. But I put it on my "wait list" because it was possible for me to make do with a less efficient but still useable print sharing scheme provided by Windows.

What prompted my change of heart was the pained look on my wife's face as she raced up and down the stairs to turn on my computer and its attached printer, and then finding out that nothing would print because she turned them on "improperly". Being the caring spouse that I am, I decided to wave good-bye to another US$100 and got the print server now rather than later.

Print Servers vs Print Sharing

This latest addition was facilitated by the fact that I was already familiar with print servers, having previously used HP LaserJet print servers for nearly a decade. A print server, according to my definition, is either an internal module that plugs into a printer or an external box connected to a printer that allows that printer to be shared by computers on a network. Print sharing à la Windows or any form of print sharing that requires assistance from a "peer" computer does not qualify. While internal print server modules tend to be available only for larger printers (invariably, laser printers), the external print servers allow ANY printer - regardless of size, speed or type - to perform the role of a print server.

On the subject of print sharing, Windows has had the ability to share printers going back to Windows for Workgroups v3.11 (i.e. the networkable version of Windows v3.1). Indeed, I've been using Windows 9x/Me's print sharing at home - both in Thailand and here in the U.S. - for years now. The setup process isn't terribly difficult, but it does require the setting up of Windows network properties, a task that can be daunting for first-timers. The steps are as follows:

  1. Connect a printer to a Windows computer (the "host").
  2. Install the appropriate printer driver and insure that it can print in standalone mode.
  3. Install NetBEUI as a networking protocol.
  4. Install and enable file and printer sharing for Microsoft Networks on the host computer.
  5. Create/name a "printer share" on the host computer.
  6. On the "client" computers, make sure that NetBEUI is installed as a networking protocol and that other computers on the network can be "browsed".
  7. Create a printer that points to the printer "share" on the host computer. The printer driver will be automatically copied over from the host.

(Note: I believe you can use TCP/IP instead of NetBEUI as your networking protocol, but I've never done it before. You may want to do this if your network contains Linux machines, although Linux, with the help of Samba, is also able to communicate with NetBEUI.)

My present situation is made worse by the fact that I have one of the newer Epson Color Stylus inkjet printers. Unlike the dumber printers of yesteryear, this one not only receives information from the computer, it also insists on sending information BACK ("bi-directional communications" in tech talk). Thus, the computer better be ready. What this means is that Windows must be up and running before the printer is turned on, otherwise the printer may refuse to print. Indeed, this printer sometimes goes "walk-about" and the only way to turn it off is to unplug it (which in the best of Catch-22 traditions, the manual doesn't recommend).

NetGear Print Servers

Since my home network was already liberally sprinkled with NetGear hardware (for which I've had no complaints), it made sense for me to see what NetGear had to offer. (Incidentally, NetGear is a Bay Networks company, a company with strong networking credentials.) Only printer vendors themselves make internal print server modules, and since none was available for my model Epson, my only choice was to get an external model. NetGear actually makes 3 models of print servers (vide: https://www.netgear.com/categories.asp?xrp=6&yrp;=15):

  • Model PS105. This comes with four 10Base-T (i.e. 10Mbit) LAN ports. If you have few LAN devices, this one "box" could meet all of your networking needs in one go. However, if you wish to connect this box to another hub or device, you'll need to sacrifice one of the LAN ports as a "downlink" port. The PS105 allows only one parallel printer to be connected/shared.
  • Model PS110. This comes with only one 10/100 Mbit LAN port, invariably to be used as a downlink port, but it allows TWO parallel printers to be attached.
  • Model PS113. This is similar to the PS110 except that THREE parallel printers can be attached.

(Note: No serial or USB printers are supported.)

Because I have two printers in Thailand (only one here in the U.S. - sniff, I miss my laser printer), and because my hub - courtesy of my NetGear RT314 router - also runs at 10/100, I opted for the model PS110. This added another chunky A/C adapter/mini-brick to my A/C outlet, but fortunately I had planned for this beforehand when I got my first two NetGear boxes (i.e. the bridge and router). The downside of this is that I now have 3 NetGear boxes sitting on top of each other and more blinking lights to contend with (figure 1). Thus, an upgrade of my Kleenex box from a 200 count box to a taller 250 count box seems inevitable as well. (Note: If you didn't read my Internet Sharing Solutions, Part 6, you won't get this "joke".)

Hardware/Software Installation

The hardware installation of the PS110 was fairly simple. Detach the parallel printer cable from the computer (turned of,f of course) and screw it into the back of the PS110 (likewise, unplugged). Attach a CAT5 downlink cable from the PS110 to the RT314, plug in the PS110's A/C mini-brick, turn on the printer, and then observe the pretty green LED's. Everything's fine.

The software installation was more involved, but I was aided by my previous experiences with HP's JetAdmin print server software as well as past experiences setting up shared printers under Windows. For neophytes, this can be pretty hairy since there is no frame of reference to rely on. The most important thing to understand is that your computer will no longer print to a real LPT1: port, but rather to a "network" port created by the print server software which intercepts data destined for LPT1: (figure 2).

The print server software must be installed on each computer that wishes to print to the print server, as there is no host or central computer to manage things. The software is first installed from NetGear's provided CD. Then, the resulting application is run in order to "detect" what print servers are available on the network and to "add" the desired printer(s) to your computer's system properties. This is what the "discovery screen" looks like for me (figure 3), with my Epson Stylus connected to the PS110.

After adding the network port, the printer driver itself needs to be installed. This procedure is the same as for any printer. Since my printer had previously been installed as a standalone printer, all of its drivers already existed on the system. Thus, I just needed to tell Windows to re-use the existing drivers. Otherwise, you would need to provide Windows with the printer driver diskette or CD.

A bit unique to my Epson printer is that I also needed to disable bi-directional printer support (double click the printer icon, go to "Printer", "Properties", "Details", and then "Spool Settings"; see figure 4). Actually, the PS110 DOES support bi-directional communications, but ONLY between the printer and the print server - NOT between the printer and your computer (which is now a step further away). From a user's standpoint, though, this is useless.

One final thing that I did was to disable the "Epson Printer Port" (double click the printer icon, go to "Printer", "Properties", "Utility", and then "Speed & Progress"; see figure 5). I'm not absolutely sure what this is, but I suspect it is a "virtual" printer port (similar to a network port) that Epson's software creates and prefers to print to instead of LPT1:, presumably because it enhances communications with the printer.

The Good, The Bad and Well, Nothing's Really Ugly

For my wife, the new print server setup is a god-send. Previously, whenever she wanted to print from her computer upstairs to my printer downstairs, she had to:

  1. Walk downstairs and turn on my computer (if it wasn't already on).
  2. Wait for Windows to start loading.
  3. Turn on the printer.
  4. Walk back upstairs.
  5. Instruct her program to print.
  6. Walk back downstairs to pick up her hard copy.
  7. Turn off the printer and my computer if I'm not around, or just turn off the printer if I'm around.

Of course, this assumes nothing goes wrong. (Note: A variation of the above is to yell downstairs to someone to perform steps 1-3, with step 4 now mooted.)

Now, with the printer server, all she has to do is:

  1. Instruct her program to print, ignoring whether the printer is turned on or not. If the printer wasn't on, she will soon see an error message on-screen notifying her that printer isn't ready. This can be ignored.
  2. Walk downstairs to the printer.
  3. If the printer was already turned on (rarely so, since I'm pretty conscientious about turning off the printer after I finish using it), her printout will be awaiting her (unless it's very long).
  4. If the printer wasn't turned on, she just turns it on, waits 5-10 seconds for the printer to warm up/initialize, and the printout will come flowing out. Meanwhile, the error message on her screen will disappear.
  5. Turn off the printer (if she doesn't forget).
  6. [Optional/Rare] Utter a prayer of gratitude for having such a wonderful husband.

(Note: My computer is no longer the conduit to the printer, and therefore, whether it is turned on or not, is completely irrelevant.)

Another really nice thing about the print server, which I didn't expect, is that printing now starts almost instantaneously after a print command is issued (at least from my computer which is linked via a 100Mbit bus to the print server). Previously, there would be a delay of about 5 seconds before the printing started. My wife never noticed this before, but I did since the printer is a mere 2 feet away from me. This may (or may not?) be due to my disabling of the so-called Epson printer port. Not sure.

Okay, now for the bad news. The biggest problem is that Epson's "Status Monitor" no longer works. Status Monitor is an Epson utility which allows you to monitor the status of the printer, such as the printer's "Ready/Not Ready" status, ink levels, paper jams, etc. Unfortunately, Status Monitor seems to work only via a parallel or USB cable, but since the printer is no longer connected directly to the computer, Status Monitor can no longer find the printer and therefore, can't monitor anything whatsoever.

With the Epson, I'm not left totally helpless though. If the printer is not "Ready", a Print Manager window will pop up (as when my wife prints with the printer turned off) to indicate such. As for the ink levels, there are lights on the printer's front panel which flash when either the black or color ink cartridges are low and illuminate constantly when the ink has run out.

It should be noted, though, that the lack of printer management is NOT endemic to all print servers. Back when I used HP LaserJets equipped with internal print server cards and HP's JetAdmin software, I could remotely view any and all information that's available on the printer's LED console. But that was probably because everything was made by the same company and the components were designed to work together.

Because external print servers are designed to work with ALL printers and as such, they're less able to work with printers at an "intimate" level (a possible exception: HP external print servers + HP printers + HP JetAdmin software). In my particular case, the printer and its Status Monitor are made by Epson, while my print server box and its print server software are made by NetGear. As such, NetGear's inability to work with Epson's Status Monitor, while unfortunate, was not entirely unexpected.

One final downside: Less walking = Fatter thighs. On the other hand, Less aggravation = Fewer grey hairs. Umm, I'm treading on pretty dangerous ground here ...

Final Words

  • While both this and my Internet Sharing Solutions, Part 6 article deal with a "home" network, there's nothing peculiarly "home" about it at all, except perhaps for the Phoneline networking. The hardware I'm using is, in fact, considerably more sophisticated than the hardware I used at my previous place of work, mainly because it's newer and I managed to get it cheaper here in the U.S. - MUCH cheaper. My home network (except for the Phoneline stuff which isn't really recommended for an office environment unless one's REALLY hard up) can in fact be transplanted to any small business and work just as well.
  • I detest office environments where everyone has their own standalone printers. In toto, they're expensive and a pain to manage. Back at my old finance company, we served about 800 computers with about 40 print servers (approximately one per department). It's great a solution - you can add computers without having to add individual printers and save tons of money in the process. Furthermore, the IT department was able to manage all of the printers remotely from any location. Our HP LaserJets 4's/5's were as sturdy as tanks and hardly a single print server card ever failed over 5 years. This works in small businesses as well (I've done so) and is a solution that I highly recommend.

Copyright © 2001, Thiravudh Khoman