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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Google Cloud Print - A Remote Desktop Solution For "Anywhere" Printing

It isn't often that I get giddy about a tech discovery (or re-discovery in this case), but when an elegant and effective solution to a significant technical challenge comes along, I experience Nerd Joy. This week's Nerd Joy brought to me by Google's updated Cloud Print service.

I came across Cloud Print quite awhile ago, back when Google first released it I think. My impression was that it was interesting, but not quite useful enough to really try and fit into my infrastructure. This week I happened to stumble across information about the updates Google made to the service back in July of 2013

Specifically, Google now provides a mechanism for enabling access to remote printing via a Windows service that runs in the background on a client, which administrators can then associate with a "master" print user in Google Apps. This user can then share those printer instances tied to that account with the rest of the users in the Google Apps domain, much like access to folders and files in Drive can be shared.

I installed and tested this service on a couple of machines at different sites, then shared the printers that were added to a test account. Printers can be shared per user, group, or publicly via a link that, when clicked, prompts the currently logged in Google Apps user to add the printer to their collection. While this mechanism works most effectively when someone is using Chrome, I also tested printing while logged into the Apps test account using Firefox.

The fairly minor catch in this process is that the printing is not handled by the local Windows printing service, but rather a document not already in Drive must be added to a print queue via upload.

A Windows Cloud Print "driver" is available that installs a virtual print driver (much like the "universal" print drivers from HP), but initial testing did not have the same success as the uploaded documents. When the virtual print driver was selected as the target in a Windows application print dialog, the print job got stuck in the queue with a status of "in progress". From what I can gather, this is a commonly encountered wrinkle. However, it is FAR from what I would call a "show stopper".

The reason this has me so giddy is because remote printing has been the one function people count on that's not reliably available using Remote Desktop. Yes, RD can "redirect" a printer connected to a local machine so that the printer instance is available for printing from the remote session, but unless the remote desktop session in question is logged into a client behind the same router as the local machine, printing response is glacial not even available.

I have toyed with the thought of making one or two printers at each site available via port forwarding and enabling IPP, but my impression is that this would be no less cumbersome to employ for remote desktop use because it still requires print driver installation on each potential RD host. Not manageable.

With Cloud Print, not only can I skip the driver installation requirement (or hair pulling experience of driver compatibility on servers) and messing with GPO to get Easy Print 'working", but I can also manage permissions and enable end user "self-install" of Cloud Printers with a single internal web page that provides a link to each printer that staff can add as needed.

Installing the service on one machine at each site that has multiple local networked printers installed is dead simple, and just WORKS. Staff who will be using remote desktop from multiple sites can be motivated to take that extra step to print if it means printing is now a more responsive function and they don't have to email themselves a document, then download it to the local machine (completely negating the security/privacy feature of having a remote desktop in the first place), then try and figure out which printer is available from the local machine, then remember to delete that downloaded document... et cetera, et cetera. 

Typically, in my experience, if a workaround procedure takes more than one extra step, it's going to cause frustration and ultimately be avoided. 

Providing all the functionality of a local desktop session within the privacy/security of RD is the ultimate goal for the H2T project. Google Cloud Print provides the means for staff using Remote Desktop to keep ALL their work functions encapsulated in the RD environment. Furthermore, GCP enables a critical enterprise function to be managed within Google Apps, removing yet another complicated piece from the Microsoft Server puzzle I am trying to simplify.

Finally, in the "icing on the cake" department, there are GCP apps for both Android and iOS, making the prospect of printing from mobile devices a very realistic option.

On we go!

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