E-Handbook:

Remote print management and security for the hybrid workforce

VPN and cloud-based printing options change with the times

Print workflow and IT infrastructure are key considerations when choosing between a VPN and cloud printing setup that can accommodate the needs of a hybrid workforce.

Remote printing and even printing within office locations have created longstanding difficulties for employees and IT professionals. But the COVID-19 pandemic and sudden transition to near-universal work-from-home environments have forced companies to take a new look at printing technologies and procedures.

To adequately address remote and intra-office printing challenges, businesses must consider two important factors: print workflow and IT infrastructure. If, for example, all users within an organization are working remotely, then it doesn't make sense to send a remote print job to an office printer when no one is there to receive the printed documents or load the printer with paper. Therefore, an administrator would have to seek an alternative printer location -- perhaps another remote workplace. As employees return to the office and remote print jobs need to be sent to corporate facilities, IT will need to review the infrastructure to support remote printing and possibly consider alternatives.

Remote printing works best when using a VPN or cloud-based printing service, and the choice depends on factors such as cost, support, ease of use, security and overall practicality.

To VPN or not to VPN?

Remote printing over a VPN connection might seem like the obvious choice when a company already has a virtual private network in place. But printing over a VPN can be problematic for several reasons:

  • Printer redirection. Besides printing remotely, there'll be situations in which users print to their own local printer, even if it is only for personal reasons. Users will have to know how to direct print jobs to the appropriate remote or on-site destination. VPN client software often makes it tricky to manage device redirection.
  • Missing printer drivers. Users probably won't have the required drivers installed on their personal devices. This issue is less problematic than device redirection since the drivers only need to be installed once. There's also a good chance that the company's print server will be able to install the required device drivers automatically the first time a user prints to a remote printer. Windows print servers, for example, will automatically install printer drivers to Windows clients.
  • Security. If a user has established a VPN connection, then the connection is presumably secure. But Windows printing still requires TCP ports 139 and 445 to be open, as well as UDP port 137. Administrators may sometimes be reluctant to open additional firewall ports.

Even though remote printing over a VPN is done almost exclusively in a corporate environment, it's possible to use VPN connectivity in other situations -- for example, when a user sends a print job to a printer in another user's home. Users sharing their printer would need to create a personal VPN, but the lack of technical support and user expertise generally makes this option impractical.

Looking to the cloud

Several cloud-based options can facilitate remote printing. They offer simplicity for users and reduced management worries for IT, but they do introduce security vulnerabilities.

Some cloud options are free, and others are paid services based on flat-rate subscriptions or the number of pages printed. Fees can be substantial for companies being charged on a per-page basis. Organizations also need to weigh how much control they want to maintain over their printing infrastructure, since cloud-based printing providers handle most of the print configuration and management.

When printing from one remote location to another, consumer-grade cloud-based printing services are often free and tend to be easy for users to configure without assistance. Yet companies must consider whether these services offer the necessary security when printing sensitive documents.

Cloud printing services geared to companies rather than individuals enable users to securely print to corporate printers from any location, using any device. These services can greatly simplify remote printing for users and, in many cases, eliminate the need for users to install a printer driver on their devices. Some cloud-based printing providers also offer advanced analytics to help companies better ascertain user printing habits and perhaps reduce costs.

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