PC Load Letter?! What the f... does that mean?!
October 10, 2018 6:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm in charge of a small lab with 8 computers in it. I would like to be able to print to one printer from all 8 computers. I have tried a few different configurations and none of them work reliably. So, what is the best way to print from 8 computers to 1 printer?

Here are the details of the lab: 8 Mac Mini computers of various vintages, all running various versions of MacOS (some as old as Yosemite, but some more recent than that). A Brother HL-L2340DW printer. A finicky wireless network that I have no control over.

There are actually two wireless networks, a public one and a secure one. Because of the way the network is configured, the printer cannot connect to the secure network. My first attempt was to connect the printer to the Public network, but that never reliably worked. My current attempt has been to connect the printer (via USB) to one of the Macs in the lab and have it share its printer over the network. This has worked better, but still fails ~25% of the time for reasons that are unclear, but I think mostly have to do with the finicky network. A 25% failure rate is super-annoying because, with 8 computers in the lab, this means that a couple are typically not working at a time. Troubleshooting includes reinstalling the printer, disconnecting and reconnecting to the wireless network, plugging or unplugging wired connections, etc. These steps sometimes work and sometimes don't.

As of now, I'm wondering about getting a Bluetooth print server, although from what I'm reading, that is a printing technology that's time has passed (and can you even connect more than one printer at a time?). The Brother printer also has a "WiFi Direct" mode that, I assume, is an ad hoc wireless network setup. I've yet to try that.

Assume that I have no control over the configuration of the wireless network, but control over all other aspects of this. I'm happy to throw a little money at this (up to and including buying a different printer). So, what's the answer? New printer? Some sort of local ad hoc wireless network?
posted by Betelgeuse to Computers & Internet (15 answers total)
A roommate bought an Epson WF-7720 earlier this year, for a hundred-something dollars I think they said, and while setting it up I noticed that it has a built-in file server. I got the impression that it would be possible to set things up so that you could save a PDF to the file server and then print the file from the printer's control panel. So if you have no control over the network something like that might be a slightly more manageable workflow, if getting the network to let the file transfer to occur is a separate, verifiable step before the user needs to start messing with the printer.

Alternatively... is the implication that the secure network is more reliable than the non-secured network? If so, and you can figure out some third, more reliable way for the printer to connect to the internet, you could set up one of the “cloud print” services which involves the computers sending their output to some company's servers somewhere, which forwards the output to the printer. Google, Apple, and each printer manufacturer seem to have their own cloud printing services.

Either of these suggestions have security implications, of course, with third parties potentially being able to look at what the users are printing.
posted by XMLicious at 7:24 AM on October 10, 2018

FWIW, I have a Brother laser printer at home and it was a total nightmare attempting to set it up as a wireless network printer. Eventually I plugged it into a wired router and now it works maybe 95% of the time.
posted by bondcliff at 7:29 AM on October 10, 2018

Something like Papercut NG should work fine.

But based on previous experience I'd set up a separate network print server that's physically wired to the printer via ethernet.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:03 AM on October 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Public wireless networks are often set up in such a way that stations connected to the public network can communicate only with the wireless access point, which generally functions as the Internet gateway for the public network, but not with each other.

It's also entirely plausible that your current network's firewall rules make it impossible for stations on the public wifi to communicate in any way with stations on the secure wifi, and this will block your secured Macs from talking to your forcibly unsecured (does your workplace use one of those stupid browser-based authentication things?) printer.

If you're lucky, the printer's WiFi Direct support will do an end run around all these limitations by setting up a third wireless network dedicated to print service. If you're not, your Macs will refuse to connect to more than one wireless network at once and cruel the whole thing.

If that were my lab, I'd treat the lack of control over its internal network as completely intolerable, ignore all the wifi bullshit entirely, and just wire the Ethernet ports on all the Mac Minis and the printer together using a couple of super-cheap 8-port Ethernet switches. Once that had been done, I'd expect them all to find each other via Bonjour/Zeroconf.
posted by flabdablet at 9:46 AM on October 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

flabdablet, I don't think this printer has an ethernet port
posted by scruss at 10:33 AM on October 10, 2018

Use Google Cloud Print. It looks like your printer is compatible. Because it uses a third party server, your network setup doesn’t matter as long as each computer and printer can access the internet.

If you’re data/privacy-conscious, this might not work for you.
posted by suedehead at 11:36 AM on October 10, 2018

My anecdata: Apple products are sworn enemies of wireless printers. Every single one of them...
posted by kuanes at 11:50 AM on October 10, 2018

All my Brother printers have had ethernet ports but they're not prominently displayed so I'd go with flabdablet. As for cloud printing, I've never gotten that to work reliably.
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:24 PM on October 10, 2018

The Brother HL-L2340DW spec sheet makes no mention of Ethernet capability. It looks like that's only available on the HL-L2360DW.
posted by Aleyn at 6:21 PM on October 10, 2018

So it is. Buggeration.

Also looks like you need a HL-L2360DW to get PCL6 support as well, which means the only way to send something to a HL-L2340DW that it understands is to use one of Brother's proprietary drivers, which for all practical purposes rules out using something cheap and ARM-based like an Orange Pi Zero to act as an always-on CUPS print server because even Brother's Linux drivers are closed-source and available only for x86 processors.

So my next plan of attack would be to wait for all the swearing to stop (which could take several days), then wire all the Macs together with Ethernet as before (the good part being that now I'd only need a single 8-port switch to do that), then plug the HL-L2340DW into one of the Macs via USB, then install whatever bullshit proprietary Brother crap it needs to to make it work, then tell that Mac to share it over the network, then arrange to have that Mac switched on whenever any of them wanted to print anything.
posted by flabdablet at 9:55 PM on October 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Do you have any budget at all? Because while I have no specific recommendation, printers of that class can be had all day from multiple vendors for a couple hundred dollars. Your easiest solution may be a different printer.
posted by Mitheral at 10:04 PM on October 10, 2018

Basically, the point is that wireless networks are all to some extent fuct, and if there is any way you can use wires instead then you definitely should. And this goes double for wireless networks where you're not in charge of the WAP.
posted by flabdablet at 10:04 PM on October 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you're using a Mac as a network server for a USB-connected printer, you'd also want to arrange for it never to put itself or its network interfaces to sleep. Again, that goes double for wireless networking.
posted by flabdablet at 10:09 PM on October 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

use one of Brother's proprietary drivers, which for all practical purposes rules out using something cheap and ARM-based like an Orange Pi Zero to act as an always-on CUPS print server

I'm finding having been forced to rule this option out completely offensive and have determined to bend Brother to my will. I've just ordered an HL-L2300D, which is essentially the USB-only version of the same machine, and when it arrives I'll be doing my damndest to persuade an Orange Pi Zero to make it available over an Ethernet network. If I succeed, I'll post a detailed step-by-step.
posted by flabdablet at 4:30 AM on October 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Meanwhile, if you can stand the stupid workflow that OS X imposes for WiFi Direct printers (essentially you need to connect your Mac's WiFi interface to the printer's SSID, then print, then connect the Mac's WiFi back to the usual network on every. single. print. job) then using that will probably work.
posted by flabdablet at 4:39 AM on October 11, 2018

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