Wireless print server. Image credit: Flickr
Wireless print server. Image credit: Detsnee, Wikimedia Commons

A print server is a type of computer that receives and processes print jobs from various computers on a network. It enables printing from different computers, negating the need to transfer files to a particular computer on the network, or have a separate printer installed for each computer. The server enables printing on one or more printers. In other words, it makes a printer communicate with multiple computers on the network. The server can have any number of client systems or computers added to the network. If there are multiple printers on the floor, the server helps centralize the management of those printers.

Printers are usually nowhere close to being as snappy as typical CD writers or hard drives. When multiple print requests come through, the server stores and queues all the requests in a temporary, separate file known as spool. The documents to be printed are then sent out for printing on a first-come, first-serve basis at a speed the printer would not have any issues handling.

Beginnings

In the earlier stages, print servers had to be installed on a separate computer. The other computers on the network carried out print jobs through this computer. Later, HP came up with a slightly more convenient printing technology called JetDirect. The setup comprised a box that could simultaneously connect to the network and an HP printer, so that multiple computers in the local area network could use the printer. With time, the box was reduced to a card that could be seamlessly inserted into HP printers that accepted the card. With more technological advancements, printers were made with print servers built-in.

Connecting a Print Server

The server could be connected to a printer and computers on the network wirelessly or through a USB or Ethernet cable connection. Some printers come with inbuilt server hardware that helps directly connect them to the network wirelessly. In the case of USB-based printers, a Wi-Fi-based print server can be attached to the printer using a traditional USB cable and the printer can then be made available to the network wirelessly through the wireless server.

A diagrammatic representation of print server network. Image credit: Detsnee, WikiMedia Commons
A diagrammatic representation of print server network. Image credit: Detsnee, Wikimedia Commons

Some printers and routers support Wi-Fi protected setup (WPS), a wireless networking specification. To set up this printing environment, the router’s WPS button must be activated, and WPS must be chosen on the LCD menu of the printer. The printer is now configured for network usage. The computer that intends to use the printer wirelessly must have printer software installed.

Printer software can be installed onto any computer. These software programs could vary across printer brands. Certain operating systems, such as Linux and Mac OS X, come preinstalled with software for computers to interact with the print server. Almost all computing platforms can send print tasks to such print servers. Wireless printers come with official apps that can be used to direct print jobs from Android, iOS and Windows smartphones and tablets to the printer.

Drawbacks

The aforementioned points cover most of the positives there are to print servers. But there are also certain disadvantages to the server. For instance, print servers don’t support multi-function printers that also handle photocopying and fax. Also, certain printers incorporate proprietary commands that print servers do not support. Not to mention, the server going down would negatively impact all connected printers. Assigning unique servers to each printer can prevent the issue, however.