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Why is Printing the Last to Reach the Cloud?
Thu, 22nd Feb 2024

The past 20 years saw the advent of cloud storage solutions – such as Google Drive, Dropbox, and OneDrive – completely transforming the way organisations run their IT infrastructure. File servers were the first to go, and cloud-hosted Software as a Service (SaaS) applications arrived soon after. CRM and other non-core systems migrated to the cloud, and core systems, including directory services and identity providers, were next. 

Organisations now routinely outsource many of their core business solutions to specialised third-party providers. 

So, with printing still an essential part of business operations, why has printing been so slow to move to the cloud? Here are some of my thoughts.

The age of cloud

Recent years have seen an acceleration in organisations moving to the cloud, driven by the appeal of remote access for employees and enhanced security compared with on-premises file storage. Over time, cloud storage solutions became more advanced – what started as a convenient way to share files with people outside the organisation eventually replaced traditional file servers. Little by little, SaaS vendors began adding extra features that had long been a pipe dream, such as working on documents directly within web browsers, reducing the need for packaging, testing and deploying apps.

The shift to the cloud has led to the rise of SaaS providers, who design and manage specialised solutions to cater to other business needs. As organisations adopt more of these subscription-based cloud services, fewer of their core systems run on their own servers. 

All this enabled organisations to downsize their internal IT generalist teams, reallocating IT expenditure to specialist IT roles focused on solving organisation-specific problems. Few internal IT departments look the same today as they did just five years ago. 

Understanding the barriers for print

According to PaperCut’s Principal Product Manager, Keith O’Brien, the biggest inhibitor of cloud printing is the availability of the technology to provide a consistent user experience when compared with a traditional print server. 

Says Keith: “The print server has been around for decades: it’s well-understood, mature, reliable, and robust. When you move into the cloud, you must reinvent a solution that will do the same job as a print server, which takes a lot of time and money, not to mention expertise and innovation to create a replacement for the traditional print server. That means print management companies need to not only develop expertise in the cloud, but they also must drop down into the server and build that level of infrastructure.”

Another challenge is data security. As a core business system, Print infrastructure integrates with other core systems, which means sharing data - such as user identity information - between these systems. When they’re all hosted in the cloud, the way they talk to each other becomes very important, as a layer of protection organisations traditionally relied upon - the Firewall separating “The Internet” from their internal network - is gone. Print hosted in the cloud needs to be extremely secure, particularly with handling data in transit and data at rest.

A further consideration for both security and bandwidth is the way print jobs move from the client computer to the printer. Traditional manufacturer-provided printer drivers can create massive files when they’re converted to a language the printer can understand. It’s not uncommon with some apps to see print jobs over 1GB in size. Once you move your print management to the cloud, you’re potentially sending very large print jobs up through your internet connection, then pulling them back down again inside your network when the user authenticates and releases their job on an actual printer or MFP. Ideally, whenever possible the cloud print solution should keep the contents of the print job on the local network, avoiding a negative impact on the organisation’s internet bandwidth, and eliminating the unnecessary security risk of sending all your print jobs outside your network. 

We often hear myths surrounding cloud-based print management, such as the assertion that public cloud solutions are not secure because the IT team doesn’t have the same level of control as with private cloud. In an ideal world, where the IT team are experts in printing (rare), experts in securing their systems and data flows using VPNs or other techniques, and bandwidth is unlimited, this may be true. In reality, most organisations don’t have this level of expertise in-house, and they instead rely on their print service provider’s expertise to build a secure public cloud print system. PaperCut's solution is built from the ground up to run on the Cloud Platform from Google, who have the scale and expertise to ensure their server infrastructure is secure and resilient from attacks, while PaperCut ensures data in transit is secure. 

What’s driving demand for cloud printing?

It may not be immediately obvious how the benefits of the cloud extend to printing: it doesn’t need collaboration or sharing, and it still requires a physical device in the office that can’t be replaced with cloud storage. So, what’s behind the growing demand for cloud-based print management?

For many organisations, there are clear financial benefits. For an organisation to host its own print servers, they’ll need an upfront capital investment for the hardware, which includes their servers, network and monitoring equipment, air conditioning and so on. The tax implications associated with this capital expenditure also have an impact on cash flow and liquidity, as these assets are depreciated over time. SaaS, on the other hand, is typically considered an operational expense that can be offset in the first year, positively impacting cash flow.

As businesses scale down on their file servers and other essential activities, they’re able to reduce their IT teams and remove a skill set that is quite expensive to develop – instead outsourcing management to the vendor. As a result, IT personnel can become very specialised in high-value areas rather than requiring generalist knowledge. 

Another key driver is the increasing exposure to cyberattacks, forcing even smaller businesses to employ cybersecurity professionals who can prevent data breaches and leaks. There are implications for a director of an organisation that hasn’t taken reasonable steps to ensure customer and employee data is safe, in some instances involving significant fines and potential jail time. However, organisations can mitigate this risk by outsourcing to specialist organisations to look after securing their systems for them. 

It is worth noting that the level of protection in cloud printing always comes back to the vendor. Here at PaperCut, we know we can build a better customer experience and product by leveraging the framework Google provides us, with the benefit of all those safeguards and controls. That’s why we can put our name behind what we do and say with confidence that it is secure.