While digital now dominates the workplace, most businesses still require paper documents for some of their processes, and printers remain an important feature of the office IT estate.
It makes economic sense to share a printer between as many users as possible, especially as it is only likely to be used intermittently. The best way to do this is to put it on the office network where all users can access it.
There are three ways that you can network a printer. The most sensible option is to get one that comes with networking capabilities. The second option is to connect a printer to a dedicated printer server, and the third is to connect it to a computer already on the network and share it with other users. All of these have benefits as well as drawbacks.
Setting up a network-enabled printer
Nowadays, most new printers come with networking capabilities and can be either wired or wireless. A wired printer requires you to connect an Ethernet cable to the network port, which is usually located at the back.
Wireless printers are different in having no wire for connection, but must be sited within range of the wireless router that will connect it with the rest of the devices on the network.
Setting up a printer to share on the network will be easiest if all devices are on the same sub-network (i.e. the IP addresses for all devices on the network contain the same first three triplets – i.e. xxx.xxx.xxx.1 – xxx.xxx.xxx.254). If the network has more than one sub-network, then things become more complicated. But this usually only happens on larger enterprise networks that are managed by dedicated IT staff.
The precise process for attaching printers to the network will vary between models, but there are a few basic steps that are common to all.
When setting up a network printer, you will have to decide whether it will have a static address or use a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server to assign it an address.
Using DHCP means that the printer will set itself up on the network once it has contacted the DHCP server for an IP address. Otherwise, you must assign an IP address that is not the same as any other already on the network (in order to prevent addressing conflicts).
If you manually assign an IP address when there is a DHCP server on the network, ensure that is not in the range used by the server. In most cases a DHCP server will assign addresses from xxx.xxx.xxx.1 to xxx.xxx.xxx.200. This means that giving your printer an IP address of xxx.xxx.xxx.201 onwards is a pretty safe bet. If you don't know which addresses on the network have already been given out to which devices, then it will be better to allow the DHCP server to give your printer an IP address.
Computer to printer
Once the printer has been set up and a test print has been done to make sure everything is in working order, you can start connecting your devices to it.
On Windows-based computers the process for linking to a network is not dissimilar to setting up a directly attached printer. In the Control Panel, select Printers, Add New Printer, Network Printer, and then let the wizard to look for printers.
This will search through the network and should discover the printer and tell you its make and model. Choose the printer name and click Add. The operating system will choose the correct driver from the list of installed drivers and you will soon be able to print.
At this stage you may not be able to see any printer, so check to see if any firewall is running on the computer; if it is it may be blocking your printer from showing up on the computer. At this stage you will have to turn off the firewall for a while to allow you to install the printer, but once done you can turn it back on.
For Macs, the process is broadly similar. Click on the settings icon (normally found on the dock at the bottom) and then click on Print and Scan.Click on the little Plus on the dialogue box and it will search through to find the printer on the network. Once found, the Mac will install its own printer rivers so you are ready to use your networked printer.
Computers running on Linux systems, such as Red Hat or Ubuntu, will have similar menu-driven processes for setting up a printer connection.
Using a dedicated print server
A few older or specialist printers won't have networking, and will need a dedicated printer server to connect to the network. On one end of the print server you can connect the printer via USB or a parallel connection and on the other you can hook up an Ethernet connection. Simple USB devices can cost up to £100, but there are more expensive options that hook up many printers to many networks, and they command a premium.
Setting up the print server depends (once again) on the manufacturer. Each one will have different functions built into it, but once again all have common steps in their set-up. You have to set up the print server's IP address so that it is visible on the network as you would with the previous example of a network capable printer.
Sharing a printer from a networked computer
The final way to make a printer available on a network is through sharing a directly attached printer on a workstation.
For Windows machines, go to the Windows Network and Sharing Centre. Next check that the workgroup name is correct (if the computer is part of an Active Directory domain, the Active Directory server will handle naming), and select Printer Sharing. Click on the down arrow next to the label, and then click on Enable Printer Sharing and Accept.
From another computer, you can connect to this printer by opening the Network window in Windows and double clicking the icon for the computer that is connected to the printer. Find the printer attached to that computer and select Connect.
On a Mac, navigate to System Preferences, choose Print and Fax, and click the plus (+) sign at the bottom of the printer list to add a printer. Tick the box on 'Share this printer across the network' to start printer sharing.
While this makes a printer available to all on the same network, the drawback is that it won't be available if the host computer is turned off. However, an old laptop or desktop computer that is surplus to requirements can do the job and provide a low cost means to share printers with your colleagues.
A shared printer is a good way of making a resource available to as many of your employees as possible. However, it is not the answer for everyone as some parts of the organisations, such as accounts or HR, may need their own dedicated printers.
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