By Paul Korzeniowski

From student worksheets, projects, and permission slips, to school board presentations and agendas, to staff benefits forms and training materials, the amount of information to be printed and stored in school systems each day can be overwhelming–not to mention quite costly. But recent trends and technological advancements in printing and storage solutions are making it possible for schools to save hundreds or even thousands of dollars over the life of the new equipment, and the maintenance of these devices has become much simpler. In this Special Report, we’ll examine some of these new trends and developments–and see how schools are saving as a result.

Printers have been used in the classroom for nearly two decades, so these devices carry the earmarks of a mature market. “For the past decade, analysts have been saying that hardware revenue would decrease and vendors would be forced to turn to add-ons, software, and services to maintain profitability, and that has certainly turned out to be the case,” said Robin Weber, national sales manager for Brother Industries Ltd.

Suppliers of printers have seen total unit sales become stagnant or take a slight dip during the past few years, yet competition remains intense. Brother, Dell Inc., Epson America Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), Lexmark International Inc., and RISO Inc. are just some of the vendors vying for a larger slice of the printer pie. As a result of stagnant unit sales and hungry competitors, product pricing and margins have been declining in most markets.

Suppliers are following three main courses to remain viable. The first is to increase sales in growing segments, such as color laser printers. The second is to expand their market segments: multi-function printers (MFPs), which feature copying, printing, faxing, and scanning capabilities, are now available in all price ranges. Yet the high margins and revenues found in these markets are not able to offset price declines in other segments.

“The printer market has evolved into a razor/razor blade business where vendors do not make money when they sell their systems, but instead when users purchase add-on items, such as maintenance contracts and printer cartridges,” said Jake Wang, a senior analyst with market research firm Current Analysis.

This represents a good news/bad news scenario for school districts. The good news is they are now able to find attractive, inexpensive, highly capable products fairly easily. The bad news is that sifting through all of the possible repercussions from their selections and choosing devices that are best for their particular environment has become more difficult.

Sifting through the choices

When it comes to printer selections, school districts face plenty of choices: stand-alone printer versus print server, inkjet or laser, black-and-white versus color, and single-function product or MFP.

Traditionally, there has been a disconnect between printer designs and school district needs. Most printers were built to connect to a PC, but schools want to share them in the classroom, among a few classes, in an administrative office, school-wide, or increasingly throughout a district.

“Right now, our classroom printers are only connected to the teacher’s computer, but we plan to migrate to network-ready devices, so information can be shared more easily,” said John Orbaugh, director of management information systems for the Tyler Independent School District in Tyler, Texas, which has 17,800 students.

Schools can move to this next phase in a couple of ways. The simplest form of print sharing is attaching a printer to one computer and then letting all users on the network send their output to it. This method is ineffective, however. The central computer must be connected to make the printer available to users. Also, end-user access rights must be granted to the connected PCs before they can access the shared printer. In a Microsoft Windows environment, IT administrators need to access Microsoft’s Add Printer wizard, specify the printer’s make and model, and input the IP address of the print server. After these steps are completed, you have to follow the printer manufacturer’s driver installation procedures.

A better solution is to set up a dedicated print server, a hardware add-on whose sole function is to enable network print sharing. Because schools are often in older buildings that are difficult to wire, wireless print servers have become popular.

“We’ve seen a number of schools that put their color printers on carts and then move them from room to room, depending on what assignment needs to be completed,” said Deby Oliver, an industry consultant for education at Lexmark.

After opting for shared printers, school leaders must determine which type of printer is best for their environment. Low prices are the reason why inkjet printers, which cost as little as $50, are the best selling devices. Traditionally, the average purchase price for an inkjet system was 30 to 100 percent lower than that of a laser printer. In fact, inkjets have been so cheap that many hardware manufacturers bundle them with their computers.

While inkjets rule the overall market, they can present schools with problems. Many inkjet printers today are still not designed for networks and lack internal network interface cards; making this upgrade can add 20 to 50 percent to the purchase price. Inkjets also are not recommended for high-volume printing, because their output quality and speed are not as good as that of laser printers. While you could use them in a classroom environment where document quality and printing time are not essential, inkjets would not be suitable for the principal’s office.

The Tyler Independent School District was lured by inkjets’ low purchase price but found the ongoing maintenance costs difficult to absorb. “Inkjet cartridges can dry out when not used during vacation time or summer,” said Tyler’s Orbaugh. Also, schools might purchase printer cartridges early in the year and find that they have dried out as a teacher tries to use them in the spring. Inkjet cartridges are significant expenses, priced from $20 to $100 depending on make and model. In general, the cartridges do not last as long or print as well as those found with laser printers.

For these reasons, monochrome laser printers have become quite popular among schools. These printers use roughly the same technology as photocopiers; their printing drums roll through a cartridge of dry-ink powder (called toner), heat the powder, and then rub it onto a sheet of paper. Usually, laser printers come with built-in Ethernet interfaces and support for TCP/IP protocols, which virtually ensures connectivity within heterogeneous networks. Most of these printers feature driver support that spans the broad spectrum of Windows operating systems and often extends to Apple Computer’s Macintosh OS, which is popular in schools.

Speed is a major attraction with laser printers: At the low end, these devices operate at speeds of eight to 10 ppm (printed pages per minute) and move up to 50 to 60 ppm for high-end devices, about twice as fast as inkjet systems. Print quality also has been a laser printer attribute. Printer drivers offer various levels of flexibility in adding special features, such as watermarks, set borders, media types, and posters. The devices also support various alignments, including flipping on top, bottom, left, or right edges. You can scale documents to fit various media sizes or size them manually from as little as 25 percent to as much as 100 percent of an original.

Maintenance costs are another attraction. Since they were designed for high-volume environments, laser printers have low maintenance costs, from one-half to one-third that of inkjet printers. As a result, laser printers have become quite popular in administrative offices where employees print reports, mass mailings, and multi-page documents.

Adding color to the debate

A few years ago, the choices for the types of laser printers schools would purchase were as simple as black-and-white. Prices for the more sophisticated printing functions, such as the ability to print color or produce photo-quality presentations, were high, starting at the $1,000 mark and working their way up.

Calculating exact costs can be difficult, because users’ output needs differ dramatically, but in general, printing black-and-white pages can cost about $0.02 to $0.07, while producing color graphics ranges from about $0.04 to $0.25 per page. Monochrome devices are not only less expensive than color devices, but they are also much faster, printing two to three time more quickly than color printers.

“We only have color laser printers in three of our 30 schools; the cost has been too high for us to consider putting them in other locations,” noted Anthony Gordon, director of technology for the Saginaw, Mich., School District, which has 12,000 students.

Despite the additional costs, however, schools are now showing more interest in color lasers. “Schools will print most of students’ work in monochrome mode and then send special projects to a color system, which is shared among a number of classes or an administrative office,” said Jack Fanning, worldwide director of printer product marketing at Xerox Corp.

The Roosevelt Middle School in Coffeyville, Kansas, fits that description. The school recently purchased HP 4600 color laser printers to enable its graphic-arts students to complete various projects and the yearbook team to print color copies of that document.

The changing nature of student projects is driving this shift. “Schools are changing their courseware so students work with graphic programs like [Microsoft] PowerPoint, so it is becoming more important for them to be able to let students print color documents,” said Brett Schmidt, K-12 education sales director for CDW Government Inc. (CDW-G).

Fortunately, prices for monochrome and color lasers are changing. “We have recently seen dramatic price drops for laser printers,” said Current Analysis’ Wang. “Users can find monochrome systems for as little as $100 and color systems for a few hundred dollars.”

Interest in and sales of color lasers is rising: Market research firm International Data Corp. (IDC) expects sales of monochrome laser printers in the U.S. to be flat in 2005, while color laser sales should rise by 20 percent. The Tyler Independent School District plans to put Xerox Phaser 6100 color lasers–at a cost of about $500 each–in its classrooms as part of a $96 million computer upgrade to its buildings and computing infrastructure.

To encourage schools to invest in color printers, companies have launched aggressive campaigns. Lexmark, for example, is offering a free color inkjet printer to every school in the United States, along with a CD-ROM of educational materials for taking advantage of the devices in the classroom (see the accompanying story). The idea behind the program: If schools see the value that color adds to class projects, they’ll buy additional devices.

While the growth is significant, color lasers still hold a minority position. “Monochrome systems had been outselling color lasers by a margin of about 10 to 1 during the last couple of years, but I expect the split to be about 70-30 in the next few years,” said Keith Kmetz, a research manager at IDC.

Multifunction printers

Besides adding color, movement to MFPs is becoming more common in schools. This is another iteration of bundling, a popular marketing ploy by technology vendors. At one time, suppliers offered separate word processing, spreadsheet, and graphics programs. By combining all of these products, suppliers were able to lower product costs and deliver more functionality to consumers.

As vendors follow the same course with peripheral hardware, the lines among copiers, printers, scanners, and fax machines have blurred. In fact, the differences between industrial-strength copiers and printers already have dissolved. Though copier/printer devices first emerged several years ago, these network-ready machines were geared toward high-volume printing environments, and they were priced accordingly. Recently, however, vendors have been adding fax and scanner functions to combo-print systems, and the rapid rise in use of digital cameras has made these devices a popular option in the consumer market. As a result, many vendors now offer MFPs with copying, faxing, printing, and scanning functions for home as well as business use.

Initially, these devices were large, bulky, and noisy–and could sometimes inconvenience users. For instance, some schools found it difficult to find the space needed to house a MFP, and the device was too cumbersome for office personnel to move. But manufacturers have made great strides toward delivering devices that are smaller and more manageable.

Another problem was that MFPs were complex, hard to configure, and difficult to operate. “We looked at MFPs but determined that they were just a piece of junk,” said Saginaw’s Gordon. “They seemed to be a nightmare to install and manage.” Some featured control consoles with a bewildering number of buttons that were hard to navigate.

Recently, vendors have improved the setup requirements with these systems. These devices come secured with several pieces of tape, but unpacking them and installing the hard, plastic paper trays is not too difficult. However, school leaders do need to check what type of paper works with the system: It could be anything from legal-size to standard #10 envelopes. With certain devices, you might need to purchase additional trays for feeding the printer thick documents or presentations.

Management of the devices is becoming easier, too, and that’s important because MFPs are increasingly being stationed in classrooms where there usually isn’t a computer technician. Many of these systems now include embedded web server network management software, so setup and management is simpler than it was in the past. The devices even will notify IT technicians when a system is running low on toner and include a link so schools can order replacement items.

Another problem was that vendors tried to push too much functionality into their MFPs and overextended them. In certain instances, the multifunction devices could be classified as printers with scanners grafted onto them–or nothing more than a fax machine with a photocopier and a printer attached. Even though a user might have had a full-size flatbed, these systems offered varying degrees of scan quality. Color scans could look good, but grayscale scans were only fair, with somewhat muddy contrast in places that would look cleaner on stand-alone scanners.

This is another area where the product designs have been improving. In a growing number of cases, the devices’ fax features are substantial. Users can fax either loose sheets or bound materials, store 10 fax numbers for rapid dialing, and program additional speed-dial numbers via the software or front panel. These devices often include integrated flatbed scanners that offer a number of conveniences. The control panels include a series of buttons that scan directly to various destinations, including eMail software, hard disk, and OCR software. You can customize additional buttons to scan to the destination of choice, such as a favorite photo editor or fax program. MFPs also support more copying options, such as double-sided prints.

The Coffeyville School District in Kansas has found its HP 4100 MFP to be quite useful. “A few days ago, I pulled out the page counter and found the system had printed about 280,000 documents,” said James Elliott, district IT coordinator. “The system has worked like a charm and has been virtually maintenance-free.”

Savings are a key theme with MFPs. Buying separate copiers, printers, fax machines, and scanners can become a pricey proposition for any school, and there is also the added headache of setting up and finding space for separate peripherals. The new products come with price tags that are 10 to 30 percent lower than the comparable stand-alone devices.

Having many different functions run off of one device also eases maintenance. “We are seeing movement among schools to a more centralized approach to device management,” said Lexmark’s Oliver. Putting separate functions in one device should make it easier for a school’s IT staff to troubleshoot.

‘Intelligent document management’

Vendors have become creative in bundling their systems. RISO has packaged its MFPs with features needed by educational institutions and now bundles assessment software with its copier and printing products, for example–and Brother has a reselling agreement with Edusoft through which it bundles that company’s assessment system with its printers.

“School districts can save money by producing items, such as assessment forms, internally rather than externally, and they can manipulate that assessment information more easily [because] it is in electronic rather than paper format,” said Lee Davis, manager of RISO’s technology department.

Another benefit of today’s MFP technology is the development of “intelligent document management” software that can route specific tasks to the most appropriate system–and save valuable dollars in the process.

RISO, for instance, offers a solution called the Education Document Management Solution, a combination of MFPs for low-volume or full-color printing and copying and printer-duplicators for high-volume tasks–plus software that can determine which devices provide the most efficient and cost-effective method of printing each job. Under this scenario, users might scan in a document and use the control panel to send electronic copies by eMail or fax. For a few copies of the document, the software automatically would direct the task to a MFP. For larger jobs, it would send the request to a printer-duplicator instead.

With these intelligent document-management tools, users can control costs and also better monitor their printing requirements.

In 2003, the Tyler Independent School District overhauled its printing operation by installing 125 Xerox digital copiers and multifunction devices and purchasing photo-quality output devices. Teachers now eMail and scan documents, such as forms, tests, and homework assignments, from the individual campuses to the print shop. The new system cut printing time from three or four days to one and costs from 7 cents to 1 cent per form. These forms are routed through purchasing, accounting, warehouse, and administration in one easy step, saving both time and money.

“The inefficiencies with our old approach had become so clear that we knew it was time for a change,” said Orbaugh. “The new system has enabled us to cut about $500,000 from our printing budget.”

Throughout the U.S., other school districts are reaching similar conclusions about the inefficiencies with their systems and are starting to upgrade their printing technology accordingly.

Growing storage requirements

As the use of computer technology to improve the learning process has expanded, school districts have had to pay more attention to their storage needs. More applications and users mean more information is being stored. In addition, new digital content, such as PowerPoint presentations, video clips, and digital photos, generate larger files than traditional text documents.

Compounding these challenges, schools are finding it more difficult to manage storage. Traditionally, many have relied on server-attached storage, disks that are directly connected to central servers. As schools deploy more applications, however, the number of servers increases. “In the last two years, we’ve tried to automate more of our administrative tasks and implement new assessment systems; consequently the number of servers in our data center increased from 14 to 22,” said Saginaw’s Gordon.

When IT departments manage multiple systems, routine tasks–such as migrating outdated information from servers to other devices, or backing up information in case a problem arises–take longer. As a result, IT support staffs find themselves spending more time trying to keep current applications running by performing tasks like creating drive mappings that identify where information is stored, and less time on tasks such as integrating a new internet-based math or reading program.

Fortunately, a few potential aids have emerged: Network Attached Storage (NAS) and Storage Area Networks (SAN). Both are designed to help IT administrators add and manage storage in a simpler fashion. A NAS is a storage system that sits on a network so any computer can access it. A SAN connects a variety of storage systems, such as hard disk and tape backup systems, into a network so information can move among these devices. Prices for these products have been dropping, and vendors have been trying to enhance the installation and management functions so they are simpler for school districts to operate–and, as a result, users are taking a closer look at them.

SANs and NAS devices were designed in the late 1990s for large enterprises that had to manage multiple terabytes of information. As the products matured, vendors broadened their lines and now sell systems that come in various shapes and sizes and offer many connectivity options. A school can purchase an entry-level NAS for as little as $5,000.

The lower prices come at a good time for many schools. “We have seen our storage requirements grow fourfold from year to year,” noted Charles Flynn, district technology director for the Lee Public Schools in Lee, Mass., which support about 900 students. The reason IT managers like Flynn see such dramatic jumps in storage requirements can be chalked up to human nature: The more storage is provided, the more likely users will save everything and anything.

With the Lee Public Schools planning to piggyback the town’s computer systems onto the school district’s network, Flynn understands there simply will be too much information for the IT department to continue managing it the old way, so he is looking into alternatives and plans to move to a SAN or a NAS during the summer.

This district is not alone. “Many school districts have relied on server-attached products but are now moving to network-based solutions,” said Logan Ayers, a technology specialist at CDW-G. Yet industry analysts estimate that 40 to 50 percent of storage still is attached directly to servers.

NAS vs. SAN

NAS technology represents the simplest, least expensive move away from server-specific storage systems. A NAS, which was designed to work on Ethernet networks and can be easily plugged into most educational networks, functions like a print server and enables users who work with applications running on different servers to store information in a central location.

The Roosevelt Middle School in Coffeyville, Kansas, which serves 1,000 students, opted for a 2-terabyte NAS from Snap Technology to meet its growing storage requirements. “We felt we would get more bang for the buck with a NAS that with a SAN,” said James Elliott, district IT coordinator. “The NAS cost about half as much as a SAN and was easier to install and manage.”

The simplicity of a NAS has its downsides, though. The devices are not flexible, do not integrate easily with many storage management packages, and their connectivity to systems-management tools is limited.

SANs, in contrast, have become popular because of their flexibility and their ability to support large, complex applications. As these devices have evolved, they splintered into four different types of architectures.

Because SANs started out serving high-end users, their most popular connectivity option has been Fibre Channel, which is an interface designed for IBM mainframes. While it has proven to be an effective way to connect local storage devices, Fibre Channel is expensive, requires technicians trained in its use, and only supports transmission ranges up to 10 kilometers. “While most schools are familiar with Ethernet, few have any experience with Fibre Channel,” noted Bill North, director of research at IDC.

In response to these issues, vendors have developed three new SAN standards. The iSCSI protocol transports storage information across Ethernet IP networks. This protocol sits on top of Ethernet and can be enabled by adding new adapters to servers with their own direct-attached storage or by connecting servers and external storage to an iSCSI gateway device or switch.

Support for this interface has been growing, and last fall Microsoft Corp. released an iSCSI driver for its Windows operating system. As a result, implementing iSCSI requires users simply to purchase an Ethernet adapter for $140, put in a server, load a free Microsoft iSCSI driver on it, and connect the server through a Ethernet switch to an iSCSI concentrator, which can be bought for between $14,000 and $25,000.

Lower costs are an iSCSI attraction. A typical Fibre Channel adapter costs $1,300, and a Fibre Channel switch costs from $25,000 to $100,000. “We found that it is much less expensive for us to go with an iSCSI solution than to work with one based on Fibre Channel,” said Saginaw’s Gordon, who plans to migrate from a Dell SAN to an IBM SAN this summer.

Reduced training requirements are another plus. Typically, there is a significant learning curve as technicians get used to managing and implementing Fibre Channel, whereas most already have experience with Ethernet. Ongoing management presents the same scenario: There is a ramp-up period required with Fibre Channel, whereas iSCSI meshes with other Ethernet management tools.

There are a few limitations with iSCSI. While Microsoft has endorsed the technology, it has not received much support from storage system suppliers, especially those focused on the low end of the market. The standard does not work well with all applications, but it can support file/print sharing, eMail servers, and low-end database management systems. Latency is introduced when you put a storage system on the same network as other traffic, and iSCSI performance is not as good as Fibre Channel. To improve the former, vendors such as Adaptec Inc. and Intel Corp. have delivered TCP off-load engines, which move CPU-draining network processes from servers to specialized storage devices. Another issue is that stronger security checks are needed with iSCSI, because storage data sit outside on a network rather than in a data center.

Fibre Channel is the preferred mechanism for transaction-intensive applications, such as database management systems, and is a favorite in large and medium enterprises. Because of its popularity, vendors have worked to integrate Fibre Channel into IP networks and increase its transmission range beyond 10K. Fibre Channel over IP (FCIP) and Internet Fibre Channel Protocol (iFCP) have emerged as two potential solutions. Each uses gateways to encapsulate Fibre Channel commands into IP packets.

FCIP moves the encapsulated Fibre Channel data through a tunnel, essentially creating an extended routing system of Fibre Channel switches. Because it cannot take advantage of routing or other IP management features, this protocol is best used in point-to-point connections between SANs. Since FCIP creates a single fabric, traffic flows could be disrupted should a storage switch go down. Vendors such as Cisco Systems, EMC Corp., McData Corp., and SANcastle support FCIP.

iFCP, on the other hand, is designed to maintain the Fibre Channel architecture while gaining the benefits of IP networks. iFCP wraps Fibre Channel data in IP packets but maps IP addresses to individual Fibre Channel devices. Because the packets contain IP addresses, customers can use IP network management tools such as HP’s OpenView to manage the flow of Fibre Channel data using iFCP. McData has been one of the main supporters of iFCP.

Choosing a storage solution

When selecting a new storage system, IT administrators must keep in mind the device’s ability to grow with a school’s storage requirements. NAS and SAN units have ceilings on how much storage they can hold, and that limitation needs to be taken into consideration with any new purchase.

Since all of a school’s data will be stored on these storage systems, reliability is another concern. To address it, vendors have developed a wide range of data protection schemes. These options start with mirroring information, where data are stored on multiple disks in case one disk system has a problem. Schools often supplement disk mirroring with various backup schemes, like tape, optical disk, or removable storage; these options all require that information be stationed in multiple locations.

“The backup approaches used can be as simple as an employee taking a tape to sending the information over the WAN to a second site,” said Matt Morris, senior manager for channel sales at EMC Corp. Increasingly, the devices are being outfitted with redundant features, such as dual controllers, and vendors have developed automated techniques to switch over from one system to another in case a problem arises.

As the lines blur between what used to be the separate universes for storage, networking, and I/O (input/output) technologies, school districts need simple tools so technicians can manage them. “I have one technician for 1,000 devices, which blows the typical corporate support ratios right out of the water,” said Tyler’s Orbaugh, who plans to upgrade to an EMC SAN this summer. “We are finding it more and more difficult to keep pace with our maintenance requirements, and some repairs are stretching out for as much as three weeks. I need more tools that automate routine maintenance tasks, such as allocating storage, so my technicians can focus on more important concerns, like a failed computer.”

Vendors have been moving on a number of fronts to address such issues. Features that are designed to ease ongoing maintenance, such as browser-based management and Windows-compatible file sharing and naming conventions, are becoming more common in these storage devices. Storage system device drivers are becoming easier to install, and many feature setup and maintenance wizards that help school leaders configure and manage their systems. Furthermore, the solutions are being enhanced so customers can more easily tailor them: A school can automate backup chores via application or day of the week, for example.

The end result is that a growing number of schools are looking at or buying new storage systems. “We had 2 terabytes supporting our system and plan to upgrade to 12T,” said Saginaw’s Gordon. “That will give us