Printers

Keeping tabs on network printing with Print Manager Plus

Managing print jobs probably isn't something you give much thought to. However, sometimes you need more control over how your users access shared printing resources. Here's how Print Manager Plus may help.

Managing the number and size of print jobs is often a task of little concern, since many users normally print only short Word documents or the occasional e-mail. But what happens when a user tries to print a 1,000-page PDF file? And, when the printout doesn't immediately appear, the user tries to print it again…and again? Print Manager Plus is designed to prevent situations like this from happening.

What's Print Manager Plus?
Print Manager Plus comes in two versions. The basic version is primarily used for corporate or academic environments where administrators need to track printer usage or impose quotas on print jobs. The other version, which has a built-in billing module, is intended more for professionals who need to bill printing charges back to clients. Let’s take a look at the basic version first.

Acquiring the software
You can get Print Manager Plus from http://www.softwareshelf.com. Print Manager Plus uses a subscription base license similar to what antivirus companies use. When you purchase Print Manager Plus, you automatically get a year’s worth of maintenance. For corporations wanting the basic version of Print Manager Plus, the initial cost is $798 per print server, and renewals are about $200 per year. There's no client access fee, so the server license is the only fee you have to worry about. The price per license decreases based on the number of licenses you purchase. The company also has special academic pricing. For an academic institution, the price per license is $5,966.25, and renewals cost the same amount as they do for corporations.

If you're interested in the version with the client billing module included, the price goes up to $1,295 per server, with renewals costing $323.75 per year. Again, the price per server goes down as you purchase additional licenses, but there is no academic pricing for this version.

Installation
The Software Shelf Web site contains a free 30-day trial of both versions of the software. I decided to take them for a spin and see if they were worth the money. Initially, I downloaded the basic version, which consisted of an 8.38 MB self-extracting executable.

You can install Print Manager Plus on any machine running Windows NT, 2000, or XP, as long as the machine is hosting a network printer. The software relies on a Microsoft Access database, but the manufacturer recommends using SQL Server as an alternative in environments with lots of network printers or in environments where there are several print jobs.

The installation process was very simple and straightforward. The Setup Wizard asked a minimal number of questions, and setup completed in less than a minute. A Print Manager Plus group then appeared on the Start | All Programs menu. Running Print Manager Plus was as simple as launching the Print Manager Plus Administrator, shown in Figure A.

Figure A
The Print Manager Plus Administrator


Running Print Manager Plus
Although the Users tab is the default tab in the Print Manager Plus Administrator, it’s a good idea to start out on the Printers tab, As you can see in Figure B, the Printers tab lists any printers that are configured on the print server. You'll notice that Print Manager Plus has assigned a cost per page of five cents. If you double-click on the printer, you can tell the software whether this print device is a printer or a plotter, and you can adjust the printing costs per page manually. Likewise, you can assign limits at the printer level. For example, you can tell the software not to let anyone print a 20,000-page document, no matter who they are.

Figure B
The Printers tab lists the printers connected to your system and assigns a cost per page to the printer.


Once you've assigned a cost per page, you can control costs on a user or group basis. For instance, suppose you needed to lock down the user who tried to print the 20,000-page document. Go to the Users tab shown in Figure A, and then double-click on the user’s account. You'll see a dialog box that allows you to limit the user's printing. By default, there are no limits aside from those imposed at the printer level. However, you can select the Limit By Account Balance radio button and then set a dollar amount for the user. Once the user has printed enough pages to have cost the company the designated amount of money, further printing will be denied.

As you can see in Figure C, you can also set the software to replenish the user’s account periodically. For example, you might allow a user to incur a certain amount of printing expenses per month.

Figure C
You can set a maximum dollar amount for each user.


Replenishment works by adding a specific amount of money to the user’s account balance each month (or whatever schedule you set). If a user prints very little one month, the user can be allowed to do more printing than usual the next month, without exceeding his or her budget. Of course, if you'd rather just set each user’s balance to a specific dollar amount each month, you can do that too.

In Figure C, you may have noticed the Restrictions tab on the Edit Settings properties sheet. This tab allows you to impose additional restrictions, such as blocking exceptionally large print jobs based on the number of pages, bytes, or the document title. You'll find this tab handy in preventing users from spending their entire month’s budget on one big print job.

Client billing
Earlier I mentioned a version of Print Manager Plus that lets you bill printing charges to a client. The billing module consists of a separate download that’s about 8.5 MB. The installation process is very easy and is quite similar to that used with the basic version of Print Manager Plus.

The two versions of Print Manager Plus look and act very similarly. The biggest difference is the addition of the Client Billing tab, shown in Figure D. When a user sends a print job, the user can specify which client the print job is related to, and the total cost of the print job will be added to the client’s account.

Figure D
You can bill clients for print jobs.


The verdict
The software worked well for me and seems to be relatively easy to configure and use. It's a perfect complement to Windows' built-in printer management features. At the same time, I think the software is overkill for an organization with fewer than 200 users, especially given the software’s price. In larger organizations, though, the software licenses will tend to pay for themselves because organizations using Print Manager Plus will save money each month as excessive printing is gradually reduced.
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