How to Share Printers on a Network

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When you take into account its purchase price and all of the consumables it requires--toner or ink, paper, imaging drums, and more--you may find that a printer is one of the most expensive pieces of IT equipment in your business.

When any one user needs access to an expensive machine only intermittently, sharing the hardware among as many users as possible makes sense. The simplest way to accomplish this in an office is to put the printer on the office network, where all network users can reach it.

There are three basic approaches to putting a printer on a network. The first is to use a printer that has networking capabilities built in. The second is to attach a printer to a separate network endpoint (a dedicated print server) that may or may not have additional features. And the third is to attach the printer to a computer workstation and share it with other network users.

Each of these methods has its own advantages and disadvantages, and each works best under specific circumstances.

Connecting a Network-Enabled Printer

The easiest type of printer to connect is one that comes with a network adapter already installed in it. If your network architecture is simple, you can have a peripheral of this type printing across the network in a matter of minutes.

If every computer in the office or home network resides in the same network space (that is, if the first three triplets in the IP address are the same for each machine), setting up printer sharing is quite simple. If different subnetworks exist (so that only the first two triplets are the same for every computer) the task is more complicated--but in such a case, your business probably also has a dedicated IT staff.

You can add  standard printers to a network with dedicated print server.
You can add standard printers to a network with dedicated print server.
Often the product description accompanying printers equipped with preinstalled network adapters includes the words "network printer" or "network capable." Many printer manufacturers signal that the printer is network-ready by including the letter "n" somewhere in the model name. The network connection provided may be cable-based or wireless. Either method of data transfer will be faster than the speed at which paper can come out of the printer, so the method has no significant impact on printer performance. Network-enabled machines may be inkjets (such as the Epson B-510DN and the HP OfficeJet Pro 8000 Wireless) or lasers (such as the Dell 5130cdn and the HP CP4025dn).

The precise process for setting up a network printer for operation varies from printer to printer, but in every case a couple of basic steps must be completed.

The first is to decide whether to assign the printer its own static (never-changing) address on the network or to allow the network's Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server to assign it an address, as it does for all the desktop and mobile clients on the network.

If you decide to accept DHCP, you're likely done with the printer's network setup. If not, you must ensure that the network address you assign to the printer isn't already assigned to any other device, and won't be assigned by DHCP. This generally means choosing an address high in the range of available options--say, 200 or above. ( If you don't know which addresses have already been assigned on your network or what range the DHCP server uses, you're almost certainly better off letting DHCP handle address selection for you.

Connect to network printers from the Windows Control Panel.
Connect to network printers from the Windows Control Panel.
Once the printer is online, you can begin connecting to it from various workstations. In XP, Vista, or Windows 7, the process is similar to the one for establishing a direct printer connection. In the Control Panel, choose Printers, Add New Printer, Network Printer, and then allow the wizard to browse for printers.

You should see the new printer in the list that Windows provides, probably with a name indicating its brand and model number. If you were able to select a name in the printer options while setting up the printer, you'll see that name. Select the printer name and click add. The operating system will select the proper driver from the list of installed drivers, and you'll be ready to print.

If you don't see the printer identified in the browser wizard, check the computer's firewall settings. If you ratchet up a computer's security settings too high, the system won't permit the traffic necessary to discover and report on printer status. If this happens, you can temporarily lower the firewall settings to a more permissive level, install the printer, and raise the security settings to their previous high level.

Using a network-capable printer is the simplest way to make printing available across your network. Though the cost of network capability has come down, it does add to the purchase price of the printer, and--depending on the printer--it may encourage broader use of more-expensive print services, such as color printing.

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