Managing the Fleet

By David Strom  |  Posted 2008-09-29

The enterprise printer market is anything but organized, even though printers represent a large capital and operating cost for IT organizations. Printers are purchased in a wide variety of ways—including centrally, departmentally and individually.

Even if there is centralized purchasing in place, it’s rare for enterprises to have coherent plans for managing their printers after they arrive in their buildings. This makes predicting the overall cost of consumables difficult unless a company employs monitoring and accounting tools.

Tools for fleet management are available from the major printer vendors: HP’s Web Jetadmin, Toshiba’s Encompass, Konica’s PageScope Net Care and Xerox’s Office Document Assessment. In addition, the large distributor Synnex sells its own monitoring tool called Printsolv through its value-added resellers and partners.

However, these tools are largely designed to handle homogeneous printer populations. If you have purchased printers from several vendors, the tools don’t give you as much insight into the other vendors’ models.

Most of these tools involve in-stallation of a software agent that runs on a local Windows server and then gives you reports that can be viewed from a Web browser anywhere else on the network—or even across the Internet—with the right VPN and authentication credentials. Synnex’s Printsolv sends its information back to Synnex’s own servers, so that the reports are available directly over the Internet.

In some cases, enterprises have job-cost accounting controls set up for higher-volume printers that are located in their central copy/mail centers, but these controls don’t monitor the departmental or distributed printers that are scattered around their offices. While this does provide some controls, it leaves a lot to be desired, and the uncontrolled printers might consume a lot of paper and ink.

There are different layers of management, too. The most basic level involves managing supplies so paper and toner won’t run out in the middle of important work. At the next level, access to particular printers is granted only to network administrators and key operators. This is designed to prevent unauthorized individuals from printing 1,000-page jobs on the high-volume mailroom printers.

The next-highest level provides the ability to update printer firmware, reset stalled jobs or handle remote diagnosis. Most of today’s printers come with built-in Web servers that can perform these tasks, but support staffs still need to be familiar with the layout and menu commands of each printer’s Web control pages.

The ultimate management level offers the ability to allocate jobs to the most appropriate, least-cost-per-page printer, minimizing costs for the entire enterprise. Most companies rely on individual users to direct their print jobs to the nearest or most convenient printer. However, if the ultimate management level is done correctly, the cost savings in consumables can be significant.

“This is the last bastion of untapped savings in the IT department,” says Peter Grant, the managing VP of Print Markets for Gartner Research.

Discovering Printers

Before you can manage your printer fleet, you first have to know where all your printers are located. Unfortunately, finding them isn’t always easy. “A lot of the time, when IT managers go into these exercises [of finding printers], they don’t even know how many printers they actually have,” says Steve Reynolds, a printer analyst with Lyra Research.

“In every case, people have more printers than they thought they had. In some cases, they have more printers than there are users in their organizations. Most organizations need to carefully examine their printer fleets. These network discovery tools are important and can find more savings than IT managers can do on their own. It’s worth going through them.”

The printer management tools all have discovery mechanisms that are based on Simple Network Management protocols, but not all printers are network attached, and some can be offline or on unreachable network segments (such as at branch offices or behind firewalls) when the scan takes place.

What makes these scans truly vexing is that each tool will find a slightly different collection of printers, depending on whether it can recognize off-brand models or older printers. IT managers should plan to spend some time after the initial scan cleaning up and correcting their reports and tracking down any printers that are MIA.

One other dimension involves the ability to track printer usage over a period of time in order to spot trends or abuses. A good tool will record this time-series volume of pages printed. This enables managers to identify where their higher-cost locations are and take steps to economize if necessary.

Another aspect of fleet management is the daily chore of keeping printers running: fixing jams, feeding paper and toner, and killing jobs that turn a whole forest into a stack of mostly blank pages. Tools like Web Jetadmin are good at handling these real-time tasks, but a tool such as Synnex’s Printsolv is less useful because it merely takes a series of snapshots of your network.

Calculating Costs

Finally, the ultimate goals of this exercise should be to calculate overall enterprise printing costs and then to reduce those costs through a variety of strategies: replacing expensive-to-operate inkjet desktop printers with more efficient workgroup printers, and so forth. The desktop printers are priced low, but they cost more per page to operate and can break down quickly. Also, they are harder to track because they are often purchased by individual departments and fly under IT’s radar.

Part of any total cost of ownership (TCO) exercise is being able to incorporate accurate page-cost accounting information for each of the printers in your fleet. A ream of paper that is printed by an $89 inkjet desktop printer is going to cost more than a ream printed by a high-volume multifunction printer down the hall.

So managers need to have more than just aggregate page counts; they need a complete TCO profile for their fleets. Sometimes this information is difficult to obtain, and sometimes it is included as part of a vendor’s printer management tool. It depends on how diligent an IT manager wants to be and how granular he or she needs to get in order to figure out the TCO for operating each printer.

Another aspect of printer management is the ability to consolidate the purchasing of supplies. This enables companies to receive quantity purchasing discounts and reduce their supply inventory and fulfillment hassles.

“Typically, most enterprises don’t manage their printers,” Gartner’s Grant says. “They have fragmented purchasing, which is usually done departmentally. And supplies aren’t centralized, so [companies] are paying the maximum amount.”

After all is said and done, you should be able to figure out which printers are costing you more to operate, and which should either be retired or moved into more popular locations based on those numbers. One of the more recent trends is replacing workgroup printers with larger-volume multifunction machines.

The vendors sell consumables at a discount to encourage companies to move to these initially more-expensive models, which can fax and copy as well as print. Also, as the cost for color copies drops, it makes sense to revisit this issue and examine whether it’s worthwhile to migrate monochrome printers to color models in some situations.