Published in New England Printing and Publishing 2002  © Ron Ellis

 

IT for Prepress in 2002: More reliable, more affordable and easier to operate

By Ron Ellis

 

Information Technology (IT) in the prepress and production areas of a printing plant has changed in the past few years. Although the need to have powerful IT services in the printing plant has grown along with the growth of digital workflows, the equipment needed to build these services has improved and become much more affordable than in the recent past. It is not uncommon to hear stories of a $25,000 Alpha server being replaced by a $5,000 Dell server, and for the new server to handle capacity the old server could never dream of handling a few years ago.

The IT problems within a printing plant are typically much smaller than the problems faced in a typical business. While printing plants may have some of the typical IT issues, most — especially small printers — may have none of fancy IT needs of a large corporation. In many small and mid-size printing plants, the focus of the IT services lives in the prepress department.

 

A different focus and different needs

While typical IT usually involves email servers, firewalls, backups, lots of Windows platform machines, and moving and managing lots of small documents, IT for prepress has a different focus and requires different needs.

The typical issues faced in a prepress department involve moving lots of large files, interfacing between Mac, Windows and often Unix systems, a focus on Postscript as the page description language, color management, maintaining a variety of Raster Image Processing (RIPs) and their platforms. There is also a continual process of upgrading and troubleshooting Mac and Windows graphics packages and the problems caused by the upgrades, and backups and archiving.

Internal security is often not an issue in the typical prepress department, and email is often handled offsite or in another part of the building. Many of the prepress IT issues are foreign to a typical Windows-certified IT professional.

 

Moving large files quickly

The most important challenge involves moving large files quickly, and having enough storage so that files do not have to be deleted but can stay on the servers and RIPs until the job is approved and completed. This is a function of the server and the network components attached to the server.

A typical prepress file can be 20 or 40 megabytes, and a typical imposed plate can contain 200 megabytes to a gigabyte of data. This adds up quickly. Gaining these network speeds depends on having a server technology that can serve files to the Mac quickly, such as Appleshare IP. (Traditional Appleshare is a chatty protocol and moves at a fraction of the speed of Appleshare IP). Appleshare IP can be served by Windows 2000, and by using a product such as Xinet, which runs on a Unix, Windows, or Mac OSX server. (Windows NT does not use Appleshare IP but only uses Appleshare — unless you add a third party product such as Extreme IP). In addition to Appleshare IP, the actual network technology connecting the server to the Macs and other stations is important.

The switches and network cards in your plant should be at least 100 base T technology with key components being gigabit speeds. (100 base T is the speed and is the current standard. If you find you have slower 10 base T cards and switches in your plant, upgrade fast. It is really inexpensive.)

For example, server to switch is often faster gigabit technology, but Mac to switch is often 100 base T. New G4’s run faster on the network than old Beige machines, so if throughput is an issue, keep in mind that these will drag your speeds down. In any case, the idea is to optimize these connections so that staff spend less time waiting for these large files to move and print and more time working.

 

What platform is better?

For small plants (those with less than six operators working per shift), a Windows 2000 server or an OSX server are robust and affordable choices. Windows 2000 Server software costs about $800. Windows has an advantage for small plants in that it is very inexpensive, and Windows 2000 contains a good Mac server that contains Appleshare IP. The hardware for Windows-based servers is very inexpensive and powerful, so that putting together a Windows 2000 server configuration is easy and affordable — approximately $2,000 to $15,000+ depending on your configuration. In addition, many people know and understand how to work with and administer Windows systems so there is a good chance you may have a potential Windows administrative person on staff. (In one plant where I worked, one of the pressman was a freelance C++ programmer at night. In another, a pressman had a photographic memory and had read all the prepress manuals and server documentation and knew the technology better than the IT administrator and prepress staff.)

At this point in time nearly all RIPs and pixel processors found in most plants live on Windows servers, so having a Windows-based file server can help make the connectivity issues simple.

OSX server is also an affordable choice, and being based on Unix offers the same stability. At about $500, the OSX server software is very inexpensive. Like Windows 2000, a downed OSX server is easy to reload, and the hardware is relatively inexpensive. Unlike Windows, OSX server installs may run trouble free for months (or even years) without even a reboot. OSX server does come with a price though. It is more difficult to find employees comfortable administering a Unix-based system, which means that administrative issues can become problematic.

These days many people ask why you would go to the expense and complexity of installing a high-end Unix server? If you have more than six users each shift hitting a server, then high-end Unix servers such as a Sun or Silicon Graphics or even a Linux server may provide you with the power you need. These high-end Unix systems are powerful and extremely reliable and can run for years before failing.

In addition, if you have add-on processes such as automatically editing, converting, or are otherwise modifying files, the scripting capabilities of Unix such as CGI and Perl make this the platform of choice for many large high-end printing plants.

All of the above server platforms can be configured with RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) storage, which — although not necessary — can be helpful if you are trying to get the maximum speed from your server and network, as well as the safety and data security that the RAID provides. The typical server these days comes with 300+ gig of RAID storage.

Backup and archiving

Another important function of the prepress IT department is backup and archiving. Disaster backups are important with the main idea being that if a server goes down you can immediately pull the data off and keep running with no loss of data. (In this scenario it is important to have the backups pulled from a different machine than the server, so they can be restored if that server fails.)

Most prepress shops use Retrospect, Backup Exec, or Arcserve to perform these backups. Obviously, backups are critical because servers do go down and business is interrupted when this happens. In addition to disaster backups, most prepress IT departments perform some type of archiving function. The archiving function is to backup data so that it can be easily recalled when the customer wants a reprint or pick up of job or job elements. Many shops perform this function using the same software above, as well as writing these archive jobs to CD-ROM or DVD in addition to tape.

As any prepress veteran knows, prepress departments provide other functions beyond the basics of moving large data or performing backups. Software such as Xinet Fullpress and Color Central allow users to print “thin” postscript without large graphic images saving time and making print time short. (The images are added in by the server software before being sent to the RIP).

Software such as Xinet Fullpress and Webnative can perform many other functions such as placing customer jobs on the Internet, creating PDF files and performing other valuable file-processing tasks.

Prepress IT is also responsible for maintaining RIPs, color management, and the infrastructure for file input and output. Perhaps the most important prepress function is the actual administrative function of controlling and maintaining servers, RIPs and workstations. This can be provided internally or by an integrator.

If set up correctly in small plants, there will be little need for administrative oversight other than the occasional hardware failure. The increasing number of Windows’ savvy operators will be able to perform most administrative functions.

A professional administrator will be employed in large plants or an outside integrator will provide support, dialing in if necessary, or performing periodic on-site visits to make sure the systems are running as needed.

Probably the most exciting aspect of IT for prepress is that it has become more reliable, more affordable, and easier to operate. In 2002, there is no good reason to spend excessive time waiting for files to print or move across the network, or worrying about running out of space on the server.

 

Ron Ellis is a prepress consultant specializing in workflow training and integration. He worked in the commercial printing industry for 18 years and brings a strong background to all aspects of prepress. He has consulted on numerous CTP installations and he provides color management, integration, training, workflow development, and troubleshooting solutions to the graphic arts community. He can be contacted at 603-498-4553 or through his web site at www.ronellisconsulting.com.