focus topic: AS/400 Printing Moves Into the Mainstream

Increasing demands on AS/400 systems to produce more numerous and complex documents -- driven by the rise of data mining-driven marketing and network computing -- require greater print power. In addition, AS/400 printers are moving away from their traditional Twinax berths to attach to fast-growing corporate networks. Vendors are responding with faster and more powerful printers of all kinds, supporting all formats and datastreams -- from industrial-strength matrix to continuous-form laser printers.

The AS/400 Marketing Machine

Thanks to data warehousing and data mining, many AS/400s are actually evolving into virtual marketing machines, able to churn out highly targeted mass mailings, or "one-to-one marketing," says Bill Shaffer, brand manager for AS/400 printing at IBM. This requires more graphics-capable high-volume printers. AS/400s are entering the world of "pre-press with computer-based digital printing," he adds. "Companies can leverage their customer databases or data warehouses to create documents that drive additional business."

In the near future, more AS/400s may be generating direct mail pieces with "glossy, highly variable content, incorporating information from the data warehouse," says Shaffer. "We're seeing more AS/400s that are fitting into high-volume production printing. If you're printing 100,000 statements a month on an AS/400 production printer, why not use your databases and data warehouses to do some tailored direct-mail marketing pieces to leverage your business?"

The challenge of this targeted approach is in the "merging of different file formats -- PostScript files, ASCII files, and Tif files all coming together on one piece of paper, and only printing it once," says James Furlan, VP and general manager, distributed publishing and printing systems for Xerox Corp. (Rochester, N.Y.). A "new breed" of printers -- designed for high-volume production, but priced under $50,000 -- is being made available for these new marketing-style applications. "Companies are getting sophisticated in marketing, and therefore need more sophistication in their printers," says Furlan.

In addition, the rise of ERP packages are also having a significant impact on the need for increased printing capabilities, says Furlan. Thus, the pendulum has swung back to more centralized printing operations, says Furlan. "ERP applications are document-intensive, requiring printing output for a lot of core applications, particularly in financial systems, inventory and manufacturing."

IBM's 3160 and InfoPrint 3000 and 4000 high-speed production printers are laser printers that operate in high-volume environments, offering speeds of up to 1,000 pages per minute. The InfoPrint 4000 is also a continuous-form laser printer.

Xerox Corp. recently introduced two 65 page-per-minute systems that include production software, designed to replace aging line printers at IS shops producing monthly print volumes as high as 400,000 pages. "Traditionally, we built common print engines that were optimized for multiple environments," says Furlan. "As these environments merge via the Internet and private networks, we are deploying a single competitive platform ideal for any combination of publishing, data center or network environments."

Decision Data (Fort Washington, PA.) has announced it will be introducing a line of continuous form lasers, with speeds of 20 to 35 pages per minute, designed for the high-end market. Decision Data will be targeting shops that are generating direct-mail pieces, such as those that incorporate labels. "These continuous form lasers have cold fusion technology, so labels won't peel off from the heat," says Dan Del Peschio, director of connectivity products and services for Decision Data.

Network Attachments

It wasn't that long ago that most AS/400 shops consisted of Twinax-based impact printers hanging off the processors. "Step forward to 1998, and you have an AS/400 market that is no longer homogeneously midrange," Shaffer relates.

"We're seeing more and more network attachments, especially in hybrid environments with different types of hosts," Del Peschio agrees. "Once you attach your printer to a LAN, any users working off any host can send print jobs to the printer, and the printer will autoswitch the jobs."

While Twinax may be regarded by some as passé, demand for Twinax connectivity in printers remains strong. "We keep selling the stuff," says Del Peschio.

However, the shift away from Twinax toward TCP/IP connectivity has been dramatic in recent years, says Shaffer. "The change is revolutionary. The IBM midrange marketplace has embraced Twinax for more than 20 years." Of course, "moving from Twinax to Ethernet or Token-Ring connections with TCP/IP, presents a whole host of challenges," he cautions. To start, AS/400 managers are faced with "maintaining two network infrastructures -- SNA and TCP/IP." Plus, with straight printing via LPR to a TCP/IP network, the print job goes into a "black hole," where all command and control is lost, Shaffer says.

Many AS/400 sites have a fairly large capital investment in wiring -- sometimes tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in buildings. While migrating to TCP/IP is easy with terminals, "it's not as clear cut with printers," Shaffer says. "There's many different ways of doing it. Even the VARs are having difficulty with it."

A common strategy for interacting with and managing printers on the network is by running AFT or SCS on the AS/400, and sending printer output over TCP/IP as IPDS, Shaffer notes. Another approach is for the AS/400 to "take SCS and AFP jobs, convert them to ASCII, and send them across the network to an ASCII printer," he adds.

Most IBM printers support IPDS, PostScript and PCL, Shaffer adds. IPDS can ensure that AS/400 sites "have the same level of functionality, error recovery and accuracy that they had with Twinax," Shaffer says. Companies need to assess whether IPDS is necessary in every network situation, however. "If a printer is low volume and convenience print, maybe it doesn't have to be IPDS," he relates. "But if it's higher volume, and requires completeness and accuracy, then IPDS is the vehicle that will help make that happen."

Advanced Function Page (AFP) printing, supported by IBM, supports network-based printing on page printers. AFP can generate complex forms with fonts and graphics from network-attached laser printers. AFP is designed to send its output to IPDS printers. AS/400 IPDS laser printers can attach to Token-Ring or Ethernet LANs, including the IBM Network Printer family and all printers based on IBM's Advanced Function Common Control Unit (AFCCU).

AFP can help tie together networked printers in far-flung departments of organization. Winchester Medical Center in Winchester, Va. recently reengineered its admissions function with the aid of AFP and IBM Network Printers. Patients no longer need to check in, since nurses using wireless laptops enter information. Winchester's parent company, Valley Health System Inc. (VHS) has about 75 AFP printers, including at least 40 IBM Network Printers operating on a Token-Ring LAN. VHS also uses larger, distributed printers, including IBM 3160 Printers in its main data center and 3130 Printers in high-volume areas. "One of the issues with a document imaging system is that printing is so intense. There's a lot of data on an imaged report. What was needed was a compressed printer stream with IPDS. We were able to use AFP because it is, by design, compressed," says Daryl Davison, manager of IS hardware and operations for VHS.

In many printers, TCP/IP enables remote management and diagnostic capabilities. Decision Data, for example, includes browser-based management software that enables users to configure or troubleshoot network printers. "You can do everything except change paper," says Del Peschio. "You can view a picture of that printer with its control panel, and any diagnostic displays, reset the printer, control the printer."

More Lasers, But...

A pronounced shift has been the growth in use of page printers -- which include laser and related technologies, say industry spokespersons. The market is rapidly embracing all types of these printers, from desktop models to heavy-duty continuous form laser printers. However, impact or matrix printers are still required in many AS/400 environments. Often, the hype surrounding laser printers results in misguided purchasing decisions. "I've had people who've moved to page printers, and back to impact printers as well," says Wayne Burstein, manager of market development for Genicom Corp. (Chantilly, Va.).

For example, one company Burstein worked with was "printing multiple copies of basic pick tickets with a page printer," he relates. A line printer accomplished the same job faster and at lower cost. The page printer suffered from "a lot of paper jams, a lot of dust, and humidity," he relates. "They're fast printers, but they'll wear out in 10 months."

Total cost of ownership issues can be extreme with printers, where the cost of maintaining and operating a printer could exceed the actual host of the hardware within months. "Users often don't understand that the biggest cost in owning a page printer by far is a consumables cost and service cost," says Burstein. "The acquisition cost of a printer is almost negligible, even if it's $10,000 to $20,000. You're pumping paper, and ribbons, toner cartridges through that. They wear down faster than computers."

New impact printers on the market illustrate the continued robust market for these workhorse printers. Genicom recently announced a serial dot matrix supporting a print speed of up to 900 characters per second (cps). It is intended for applications such as shared-resource or network printing, multipart forms and labels, warehousing and distribution, industrial graphics and bar code printing. IBM's 4230 serial dot-matrix printer, which supports speeds of up to 600 cps, is configured for heavy duty IPDS graphics coming out of AS/400 systems.