Midrange Printing Expands Horizon

Printers emerged at the dawn of the Information Age as a mission critical peripheral, generating output that kept the business running. From invoices to payroll checks, printers produced forms for every link in the supply chain while facilitating internal communications via presentations, memorandums and spreadsheets. Although the IT revolution has reduced the paper flow, it has not diminished reliance on computer-generated printouts but has instead perpetuated it, prompting vendors to expand their printer lines, introduce value-added software and services, and diversify support.

Today’s printers do more than spit out lines of type as they routinely produce sophisticated graphical documents with multiple fonts as well as images, charts, diagrams, etc. in full color or traditional black and white. IBM has revised the AS/400 and its operating system to keep pace with evolving printer requirements as they can now work with most leading printers from the small desktop unit, to a workgroup system, to a high-volume impact printer.

“In today’s environment, the AS/400 is no longer printing simple lines of print, it is printing fully graphical pages, utilizing forms, images and charts that are essentially the same type you find in a Windows application,” says IBM Infoprint Manager Bill Schaeffer, based in Boulder, Colorado.

IBM originally designed the AS/400 to send line-oriented output to impact printers over Twinax connections. The output primarily populated pre-printed forms that were distributed to business partners and customers. Users had to manually order non-standard print jobs. Here the AS/400 earned its reputation as a production workhorse, responsible for processing and distributing very large, mission-critical jobs, often consisting of several hundred pages in one job. Rarely did an end user ask the midrange system to generate single-page documents such as a spreadsheet or word processing document.

In 1994, IBM changed the face of the AS/400 by adding TCP/IP support to the OS/400 operating system, thereby opening the system for use on heterogeneous networks. Theoretically, AS/400 clients could submit print jobs to any printer on the network. However, only a few customers initially jumped at this opportunity and most continued to rely on Twinax connections, according to Schaeffer. The tide reversed during the next five years as 90 percent of AS/400 customers turned to TCP/IP to connect to network printers.

The AS/400 provides native support for SNA Character Set (SCS) and Advanced Function Printing (AFP) files, and can also support ASCII and Printer Control Language (PCL) files. The ASCII support is transparent and does not require additional hardware or software. The AS/400 transmits the file as a whole to the printer without regard to the contents as it does not understand ASCII. However, PCL support requires additional help from the operating system and/or hardware attachments.

“The AS/400 supports all kinds of printers, like ASCII printers and PCL printers,” Schaeffer says. “At the same time, it doesn’t support all printers equally.”

TCP/IP support opened the AS/400 user’s door to a flood of new printing possibilities from low to high-end laser printers to high-volume impact printers. Many printers offer similar capabilities regarding the number of pages they can print per minute, the size print jobs they can handle, the resolution, etc. Manufacturers primarily use price and printer connectivity methods as the way to distinguish themselves from the competition, according to Robert Fannell, principal analyst for Dataquest Printer Group based in San Jose, California.

PCL printer manufacturers support the AS/400 through software on the server or by adding a controller to the printer.

Printing: The IBM Way
IBM leverages both hardware and software connectivity solutions to enable AS/400 clients to connect to their printers of choice. Customers can choose one or both options depending on their printing needs. Big Blue also markets a full line of impact and laser printers guaranteed to work directly with the AS/400.

IBM believes its printers represent the ideal printing solution as they provide native support for the AS/400 and thereby pose the lowest risk for problems as compared to competing products that require modification to support AS/400 applications. For example, native PCL printers may be manipulated to accept AS/400 print jobs, but they can not guarantee the best output since print errors may be introduced in the conversion process.

“The AS/400 does not speak PCL so if you take a [printer] job and send it to a PCL [printer] it has to go through transformation that converts it from AS/400 to PCL. Customers will likely find a lot of funny things happen in the conversion,” says Paul Depa, IBM Manager of Global Channels Marketing based in Boulder, Colorado.

Therefore IBM recommends AS/400 users choose a PCL printer for low-volume output that can be reproduced without significant delays in case it contains errors, and rely primarily on IBM printers for high-volume and mission-critical output.

“PCL printers can be industrial strength although they are manually managed,” Depa says. “If the PCL stops printing on page 423 of a 500-page print job, you have to restart the AS/400 print shop manually.”

IBM developed Intelligent Print Data Stream (IPDS) technology to manage print jobs and deliver detailed status reports. The data stream provides the best value in high-volume, mission-critical print jobs since it facilitates bi-synchronous communication between the system and the printer and can immediately notify users of any problems.

“Regardless of the type of printer, whether it’s a desktop unit or a high-end printer, when you start with IPDS, you create a dialog between the AS/400 and the printer,” Depa explains. “So when you send job one, the printer will respond and say ‘I got it. Here is page two, which has a different font’ if necessary. So if you get to page 44 and it stops, the printer responds with that in mind. The administrator can clear the jam and restart the printer at the page it left off.”

Keeping within the IBM product line may simplify purchase decisions and maximize connectivity but it is no longer realistic. Very few True Blue environments exist today, as most customers support mixed networks and want flexible printing solutions that can run on all major systems. Therefore IBM enhanced its OS/400 operating system and Client Access PC connectivity solution to accommodate PCL.

“The latest two versions of OS/400, Version 3 and Version 4, take AS/400 application output and convert it to PCL so you can send just about anything you create on the AS/400 to a PCL printer,” Schaeffer says. “Most printers can speak multiple languages. If you have AS/400 connected, NT connected and Windows functionality, you can create spreadsheets and send them directly from client access to an AS/400 printer or TCP/IP printer.”

IBM also developed the Infoprint Manager software to automate job management, enabling users to schedule print jobs, select the printer for individual jobs, track current and previous print jobs, and bill departments or individuals for usage. This software helped a major university distribute original copies of course material to students and bill them automatically. Previously, the school made hundreds of copies and sold them off the shelf. However, the copy quality degraded after so many duplications. Infoprint Manager let the administration store a copy of the course material on disk and allow students to print an original set at will, vastly improving quality and streamlining billing, Depa explained.

“It boils down to what you’re printing and how critical it is. If you look at it from the perspective that what your printing will determine what printer technology is best to support,” Schaeffer says. “In this type of computing environment, the printers are multi-dimensional and computers are multidimensional. But when you look at the business output whether it is reports, statements, etc. you get industrial strength support through IPDS.”

Printing Alternatives
IBM's not the only player in the AS/400 printer market. Nearly every manufacturer offers ways to connect with the powerful midrange system. Some like Tally and Lexmark have supported IBM midrange and mainframe systems for more than 10 years and consider the AS/400 users a valued part of their customer base.

“We have been in the midrange system market for as long as we’ve been around. Lexmark came out of IBM heritage,” says Neal Pankey, US Product Marketing Manager for Lexmark based in Lexington, Mass. “We support legacy systems of all types including the AS/400 and are very good at that. We feel that our printers support all competing systems in the industry.”

Lexmark targets its laser printers, models 2455 and 3455, to the midrange market and equips them with an internal interface card that transparently receives AFP/IPDS and SCS data streams and generates print outs. Lexmark’s impact printer; OptraForms also works with the AS/400 and merges the data with forms stored on the printer by translating AS/400 data into ASCII.

The vendor also uses management software to help distinguish its printers from the competition. MarkVision helps users implement and manage Lexmark network printers on a central console with its remote diagnostics, configuration and installation capabilities. The software provides an enterprise-wide view of all Lexmark printers on the network and generates management reports. Lexmark is also developing Java capabilities so it can port the software to the Web, enabling users to access it with a browser.

Tally recognizes that the AS/400 customers have grown beyond traditional coax and Twinax SNA infrastructures as many now connect their midrange systems to Ethernet over twisted pair cabling in mixed LAN environments. In response, Tally added Ethernet support to its line matrix printers, which previously could only receive print jobs from the AS/400 host over Twinax.

“This new enhancement to Tally’s line matrix printers is in response to a trend in which organizations are moving away from pure IBM environments to a combination of IBM hosts and PC networks,” says Larry Upthergrove, Tally’s manager of product management based in Kent, Washington. “Now users on a TCP/IP network can experience all the printer control and job management that IPDS has to offer for their mission-critical print jobs.”