The ‘cloud’ is suddenly everywhere. It has become an inescapable buzzword, blessed with Apple’s magical ‘i’ prefix and embraced by Google and Microsoft. Business owners are told the cloud has come to take their digital nightmares away. The theory is that the more data being hosted up, up and away in the foggy azure of cyberspace, the better a business is going to run.
Is the cloud the right approach for your business? That’s a cost-benefit analysis. On the plus side, switching to a cloud based system could help you avoid an initial investment in costly, energy-hungry server racks or software, while freeing up resources.
On the flip side, there are risks factors involved without hosting any precious intellectual property (IP) offsite, and there is the big question mark over bandwidth.
All of this is relatively new to print. Considering the industry’s analogue history, many printers are only just getting used to having miles of cabling and a scarily expensive server whirring away in the furthest regions of the shop. Now, they are being told that piece of hardware is obsolete. All that information – some of it valuable IP – can now be stored in the cloud. Even an MIS can become cloud-based. Printers are being told that if they haven’t already got a cloud-based ordering system, they’re living in the past. These are pitches heard from vendors offering up a gamut of cloud-based cures to treat the perils of our ageing industry.
Barb Pellow, a digital print expert who works with global printing research body InfoTrends, says the ‘cloud’ is simply the internet. If the cloud all sounds like a lot of hot air, Pellow’s definition won’t necessarily make things crystal clear.
She explains that cloud computing is about “harnessing and optimising the power of internet-enabled technologies – including data centres and software – to offer more flexibility, scalability and sheer computing power to consumers, businesses and anyone with internet access”.
There’s no doubt the term ‘cloud’ has become an overused buzzword. But it has quickly gained traction everywhere, starting with the man on the street who backs up his phone -book on iCloud and gets his email from Google. There are also advantages for print shop owners.
The most obvious example of the cloud’s usefulness in print is in the sales process. Ordering has been reinvigorated through online web-to-print portals.
Web-to-print systems have been around for a while now, but they have moved forward with easy setup cloud-based offerings from vendors such as Fuji Xerox and EFI, which are available to printers of all sizes at affordable prices.
Users of these online offerings, which are often branded as ‘software as a service’ (SaaS), include Brisbane-based Spot Productions. The company has an externally managed online customer ordering system that can be customised to its needs, ready straight out of a virtual box. Spot director Simon Carmody says Fuji Xerox’s cloud-based software gave the offset and digital printer all the function-ality and flexibility it required to service clients’ online ordering needs, without nasty start-up and development costs.
Carmody explains: “We needed an online ordering presence in the market to meet the needs of our expanding national and international client base.
“After doing extensive research into the various web-to-print providers, we chose OneWebPrint, which is a cloud solution hosted by Fuji Xerox Australia. Being ‘in the cloud’ eliminates the necessity to host internal web servers with dedicated technical staff and software, which at times can be very expensive to maintain and a hard cost to recoup.”
Web-to-print is perhaps the most obvious printing service to go into the cloud. Giving customers a portal where they can upload their artwork and have print-ready versions to order at their fingertips is an attractive proposition. By storing these files in the cloud, it becomes cost-effective and timely for both parties.
This is digital asset management (DAM), which goes hand in hand with web-to-print storefront. As well as giving customers a nice and easy way to order print via their web browser, a DAM approach avoids the client having to upload bandwidth-choking files, such as images, by letting the printer look after them. DAM has opened up a lucrative value-added service for print salespeople to offer clients.
In this example, a printer is not using the cloud – a printer is becoming the cloud. It is the client who would host their files remotely on ‘the cloud’, in this case the server racks in the backroom of their humble print provider.
“That is the new model of printing company: the cloud is them rather than a data centre. The printer becomes the data centre,” says Michael Smedley, Kodak business services and solutions group manager, who implements complex Kodak Prinergy configurations at major league print companies such as Geon and Hannanprint.
It’s no surprise that some printers are seizing the opportunity to take the W2P offering one step further and manage a clients’ entire digital asset portfolio. Sands Print Group has adopted Fujifilm’s Cloudnet system to spearhead its move into cloud-based DAM. Managing director Mannie Stub says this added service has revolutionised a business that had its roots firmly in the print medium for 150 years.
“Sands evolved from its origins as a traditional printer to be a major solution provider in the visual communications industry,” explains Stub.
“Although use of Cloudnet is still in the emergent stage, we saw the partnership with Fujifilm as one that will benefit both parties and deliver a turnkey solution to clients. Our DAM system allows customers to have all their digital assets stored on one database. From there, a customer can push product information out to a number of different mediums.”
These different mediums can include online marketing, streaming to live digital signage or variable data campaigns both online and in print.
“Further options include online approval to qualify assets going into the system and personalised local area marketing,” says Stub.
“The system also integrates into Sand’s pre-press systems, enhancing the movement of files from the cloud to automatic queue for printing.”
Out of the box
For some businesses buying cloud-based systems out of the (virtual) box and tailoring it through the vendor to their personal needs just doesn’t work. Franchise network Kwik Kopy got into this space early on when it decided to develop its own cloud-based web-to-print system, Zenith.
Kwik Kopy’s business solutions manager, CY Thew, says that due to the company’s quick printing model, it was looking for a no-nonsense “common sense” solution that was simplistic for both customer and the printer.
“Our aim with Zenith was to create a web-to-print offering and to keep it as simple as possible as the majority of our customer’s value ease-of-use,” she says
“It’s really quick and easy for a new customer to set up a shell and start adding customisable and static files on Zenith; taking as little as one hour to set up. We have kept it simple so the portal will only accept PDF files.
“Over three years, our franchises have been able to migrate many of their clients to Zenith and customers are finding it much easier to order this way. The beauty about developing such software ourselves is that we can tweak it and react quickly to change in the market,” adds Thew.
However Kodak’s Smedley believes that in print, simplicity doesn’t always translate to efficiency. He says that if printers are looking for a truly robust and worthwhile cloud solution, they might have to dig a little deeper. He says many of the cloud-based web-to-print systems available on the market are in fact ‘web-to-order’ solutions, giving print businesses a simple, but ineffective online ordering platform for customers.
“If a business chooses to buy a ‘web-to-order’ system, customers basically upload jobs through an online platform and the printer gets an email with a PDF. These systems offer no pre-flighting, colour profiling, or Pantone matching and they don’t report directly to an MIS system.”
There’s nothing new about the idea of ‘lights out’ production, but it is steadily gaining more exponents in the Australian printing industry. However, there’s a clash between the drive to automate processes and a push into the cloud, says Smedley.
He stresses that if a W2P system is hosted offsite, it can’t plug as directly into the production workflow as one end-to-end system. This creates bottlenecks where a person might manually have to input order information into the MIS. In a truly automated system, the order becomes the job, with no one touching the file.
This is the thinking behind the latest release from UK-based MIS developer Optimus. The company says its Optimus Cloud product has been designed to combat issues faced by print providers using traditional online ordering tools that are largely used in isolation.
“Although a good experience for the buyer, the print provider incurs enormous hidden costs in unnecessary admin-istration and duplication which is error prone and costly.”
Kodak and EFI’s web-to-print offerings are heralded as JDF-compatible. They plug directly into MIS and automation systems. They cost more than some of the cloud-based offerings, but are more of suitable proposition for the bigger printers.
“A small guy will have no problems spending $300,000 on a piece of equipment but only want to spend $10,000 on their automation. A lot of printers are yet to see the value in it,” adds Smedley
Pushed to the limit
He says companies at the big end of town are pushing automation software to the limit. With multi-state operations, varying processes can be linked via the cloud, creating synergies.
“We have national customers that are centralising their pre-press locations from facilities in each state. These customers are trying reduce costs by automating and taking touch points out of the workflow,” explains Smedley.
“Printers are gearing up to be leaner, meaner and faster, but we have a lot of customers that struggle with our tech-nology as they are so busy doing work that they don’t have the time to put together the most effective workflow solution.”
How much of this virtualised automation can be cloud-based? Currently in Australia, only a marginal amount can be hosted online. The server room is not about to disappear. While Smedley concedes that a printer’s entire workflow could one day be cloud-based, that doesn’t mean it should be. Even with the National Broadband Network on the horizon, the upload and download speeds required are eye-watering.
It is only just becoming possible to transfer 40MB files via a web-to-print portal, but “when you rip it, it can turn into a 300MB per colour”, adds Smedley.
That’s a 1.2GB file for a four-colour process job, which is starting to get unwieldy for your typical office internet connection. Smedley adds that at larger magazine printing sites, just one cyan plate could be up over 600MB. If it’s a digital job, then there’s the added variable data, which also increases the file size.
It’s clear why bigger, multi-state groups might want to overcome this, despite the bandwidth obstacles. Rather than have a full pre-press department at each site, they could reduce this to a single hub for major file processing, and just fire print-ready PDFs out to the local operation for printing. To connect Sydney to Perth, a printer would require “a 100MB, asynchronous, commercial-grade link”, says Smedley, which he estimates at $3,000 to $4,000 per month.
“Can you technically put things in the cloud? Yes. Is it practical? Not always.”
Even with all the will in the world, the complexity of automation systems and restrictions surrounding bandwidth is currently keeping these powerful systems firmly pegged to in-house servers.
Peter Brittliff, marketing manager for graphic communications software at Fuji Xerox, ran a cloud-computing webinar in December in partnership with GASAA. Brittliff says that it is not the speed of Australia’s broadband that is hindering its cloud capabilities, but the pricing of the service providers.
“In the US, service providers don’t charge for data uploads and downloads, but onshore in Australia they charge for providing the service and the data. Because graphic files can often be very large, the cost of uploading and downloading them becomes a factor.”
“Therefore, in the US, Xerox is able to work with its partners in providing cloud-based MIS solutions, but in Australia this is yet to happen.”
Brittliff maintains that print businesses in Australia are beginning to embrace cloud-computing and its multi-faceted usefulness in a very “big way”.
“We can now put web-to-print, multi-channel communications, and even dynamic programs on the cloud as can be seen with Adobe and the launch of their cloud strategy,” he explains.
“Soft proofing, digital proofing and colour management can all be done in the cloud. MIS packages are extremely expen-sive, but by putting them on the cloud on a buy-per-user basis, they become extremely scalable, flexible and affordable.”
Some printers remain sceptical of the cloud, not yet ready to trust an offsite data centre with their valuable IP. One such business owner is Adelaide Copy director Mark Frankcom.
Last year, the company installed a $20,000 server to run its Pent Net web-to-print software. Frankcom says the digital printer wanted to have all its files onsite and be able to take a secure back-up out of the office each day.
“We thought about a cloud system, but with cloud you are always relying on an internet service provider. If that goes down, you are stuffed,” he explains.
“I just feel more comfortable spending the money in-house. Our work is our intellectual property and I don’t really know if I want it floating around in cyberspace. Speed is an issue as well. It’s a lot quicker to download a 50MB file from your own server than the internet.”
While some printers are tentative to embrace the cloud, others want to see just have far they can elevate their business with this new technology. Last year ProPrint reported on a ‘lights out’ operation at Sydney Snap operation CBD Group, spearheaded through its in-house developer Green Lips Media.
Director Dan Ries has pioneered cloud-based components of Fuji Xerox’s XMPie to new heights within Australia and believes that one day a print shop’s entire workflow could be hosted completely in the cloud.
“The RIP that sits in front of the printer is really inherent to the equipment, but in the future this could be virtualised as well. It all comes down to the hardware and the software,” he explains.
“The revolution is coming through hosted server environments. We are working with that model in pre-proces-sing, which is stored at a local data centre, which is a virtual piece of equipment in a secure centralised location.”
Ries adds that Drupa 2012 might be the year of the cloud.
“I think there will be a strong element of cloud computing in Drupa 2012. As other enterprises move more computing to the cloud, printers will learn to understand it and leverage its power, cost effectiveness and integration capabilities.”
What will the cloud mean for the printer of the future? In many cases, rather than printers look to the cloud, they will become the cloud. Customers will plug into a print shop just like they are wired in to any data centre. Files are stored and processed. The only difference is that where a typical data centre trades exclusive in bits and bytes, at the tech-savvy print shop, files will come in but paper will go out.
What can go to the cloud?
Today’s printing trade is heavily IT-based. Here, we look at the most common computing processes in printing process and ask if they can be done remotely on the cloud. And if they should be…
Web to print
Already many cloud-based systems are on the market. As a web-based process, it makes sense that the back-end is also hosted online. For typical jobs, file sizes aren’t an issue. With today’s broadband speeds, many typical files can be uploaded relatively quickly.
However, bigger files can be slow to upload and an online W2P system doesn’t plug directly into the workflow for true ‘lights out’ ordering.
Digital asset management
From a customer perspective, this is always going to seem like a cloud-based system. Rather than invest in computer storage, a printer could also host these files, remotely, which is the true definition of the cloud. However, the printer’s ability to quickly access files for printing will be decided by their download speeds.
Vendors are talking about the ideas of a cloud-based MIS but it is largely just an idea. When HP acquired German-based MIS vendor Hiflex late last year, it said it would “help us create new solutions that help enterprise customers easily connect via the cloud with printing solutions they need”.
It seems more practical that a “cloud-based MIS” will in fact mean customers and printers can access the MIS remotely, but the software will remain stored on-site. In particular, there are risks associated with storing an MIS offsite, considering it is packed with valuable intellectual property, such as information on a printer’s customers and prices.
Uploading files and playing around with them is the easy part: it is downloading the print-ready artwork that causes the issues.
Some multi-state printers in Australia have looked at this, in the sense that one of the company’s hubs becomes ‘the cloud’ for the rest of the operations, but apparently found that bandwidth is still a major limitation.
The file sizes involved make it unfeasible that this will be done on the cloud anytime soon. Not only is it unpractical to be shooting 1GB files around the internet, especially given the trend toward many short-run jobs, but the benefit is not clear. Unless a printer was philosophically opposed to owning any server infrastructure, the RIP will remain a fixture in the print shop of the future.
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