Set Up Printers Without GPOs

Help your users find the right printers no matter where they're logged on

Melissa Mendick

May 26, 2008

11 Min Read
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What can you do to meet the challenge of connecting users to the resources they need, such as connecting to the right printer no matter what workstation the user is logged on to? With the advent of Active Directory (AD), making these connections certainly got easier. But some work environments aren’t amenable to implementing resource distribution with AD. For instance, you might work in a centrally managed AD environment, but your IT department is at the lower end of the AD food chain—meaning you aren’t allowed to implement Group Policy Objects (GPOs). Or your user needs could be so individualized that managing a GPO scheme would be next to impossible because everyone would need a different GPO. Or you could have to meet security regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) that require certain documents to be printed to a secured location, while other, nonconfidential documents can be printed on any printer.

In addition to the management problems, you might have users who are (how to say this and not be offensive . . .) lacking in most basic computer skills so that even getting them to use the Add Printer Wizard is difficult. If you find yourself in any of these situations and deployment with GPOs isn’t an option, you might consider making per-machine printer connections with the PMPMgr plug-in, which you can read about in the sidebar, “Recommended: PMPMgr for Printer Management.” Otherwise, you’ll need to find ways to help your users help themselves without putting excessive strain on your IT department. So let’s look at some ways you can help your users get connected without using GPOs.

Printer Connection Challenges
Although some printer information, such as drivers and ports, is stored machine-wide (i.e., it’s available to all users on the computer), information about the printers on the network that an individual user connects to isn’t. Users have to connect from each computer they use to each network printer they want to access. In some environments, this can be a challenge. For instance, a nurse might have the potential to log on to 50 different computers within a hospital on a particular day. Many businesses have shared workstations throughout their buildings that can be used by hundreds of users over the course of a week.

IT staff need to help users get to the printers appropriate for them, no matter where the users are logged on. To do so, an IT department needs to address

  • the per-profile settings (settings set for each user)

  • the company’s desire to decrease total cost of ownership (TCO), which means placing network printers only in key areas

  • the convenience to users of having a printer physically near them

  • helping users identify which printers they need

  • meeting regulatory compliance for security of sensitive print jobs

Sometimes the second and third items on the list will conflict, and it can be very trying when users complain that walking 20 feet down a hallway to reach the network printer is a hardship. It’s up to the IT department to consider every factor when placing printers.

Develop a Good Naming Scheme
Helping users identify which printers they need to use can be a daunting task. You can approach this in several ways. One way is to place a label on each printer stating its name—such as “HR Confidential Printer” or “Room 100 Printer”—following whatever naming scheme your company uses. It’s helpful if your naming scheme lets you be very descriptive about where the printer is and what special attributes it has, such as color printing or being located in a secured location. If you can’t work attributes into the naming scheme, you can use the Location and Comments field on the printer to give more information; users will need their Windows Explorer view set to Details to see this additional information. Users do have to put some effort into figuring out which printers they need. And, of course, every good IT department will tell its users to call the IT department or Help desk if they’re unsure or need assistance.

Some companies have complex naming conventions that might make sense to IT personnel but won’t make sense to regular users. I worked with a company that had a naming scheme of “company branchstate code-county code-department code,” which resulted in print servers that were named, for instance, CPH-12-056-343. Although IT staff knew all the codes, users didn’t. The company used this naming scheme to avoid using “Print Server” in the name, which was intended as a security measure against would-be hackers. But users could never remember the servers’ names, and Help desk calls increased as a result.

There’s always a balance between security and usability, which is something planners should consider with naming schemes. The name of a computer or other hardware device won’t stop a determined hacker. For that matter, anyone on your network can easily find every server name in one fell swoop. A good naming scheme might include the printer’s physical location, attributes, and department, yielding names such as Bldg50-Room100-Color, Bldg200-HR-Confidential, or Bldg300-CustomerService. Naturally, a company that has only one building wouldn’t include the building name in the printer name but instead use something such as Room100-Color, HR-Confidential, or CustomerService.

User education is something else you should consider: Let the users know the method behind the madness of your naming convention, and they should understand it better and use it more effectively. Remember, every company has its own business objectives; one company’s naming scheme might not work at all in the business located next door. So use common sense and figure out what works best for your situation. The best way to determine if your naming scheme works is to ask some of your users—both high-end and low-end. If they can’t figure it out, you probably need to tweak it some more.

Hocus Pocus: Using the Wizard
Now let’s look at some solutions for getting users connected to printers; your users should find at least one of these methods doable. I’m using Windows XP in this article; terminology and steps might vary if you’re using a different OS.

The most common method of connecting to a printer is by using the Add Printer Wizard. You access the wizard in the Control Panel Printers & Faxes applet. While using the wizard usually isn’t a challenge for IT staff, it can be daunting for users, especially if they have no idea what a Universal Naming Convention (UNC) is, what the print server’s name is, and so forth.

To use the Add Printer Wizard, click Add a printer under Printer Tasks within the applet. Click Next, choose A network printer, then click Next again. Here’s where most users get lost. There are three methods for finding a network printer: using the directory, entering the printer’s UNC, or entering the printer’s URL. The method users employ to find the printer depends on the environment and their level ofknowledge.

If you’re in a large AD environment and you want your users to use the directory, they’ll need to have some idea of the printer’s name. If you click Find Now on the Find Printers dialog box without entering any search criteria, you might find thousands of printers in the results. If possible, use some part of the printer’s name to narrow down the number of items found. I have several networked color printers on my print server with names beginning with color. If I use color as the search term, I get the results that Figure 1 shows. When you’ve found the printer you want to connect to, select it and follow the prompts to complete the connection.

If your users know the print server name, the easiest connection method is to use the UNC. For this method, users should choose Connect to this printer, but they’ll need to know the full UNC of the printer. The format of the UNC is \PrintServerNamePrinterShareName. For instance, in my example above, the user would enter (without quotes) “\MyPrintServerColor-Room101” to connect to the color printer in Room 101. If you’ve used this method before, a list of previously-connected-to print servers appears as soon as you start typing, as Figure 2 shows.

After you enter the \PrintServer Namepart of the UNC, you get a list of all shared printers on that server. Select the printer from the list, or continue to type the printer’s name if you’re sure of its correct spelling. Click Next, choose whether you want this to be your default printer, then click Next and Finish.

If you have Internet printing enabled, you can use the third method for printer connection and type in the URL to the print server, such as http://MyPrint-Server/printers/Room100. Click Next, then follow the prompts to complete the connection. It should be noted that Internet printing is available only from print servers on which Microsoft IIS is installed. This option lets employees print to a given printer from anywhere in the world. For instance, if your office in Japan needed to print a scanned timecard to the payroll department located in New York, Internet printing would facilitate this action. For more information, see the Microsoft article “HOW TO: Connect to a Printer by Using a Web Browser in Windows XP,”

Going with the RunCommand
Another method of printer connection is to use the Run command from the Start menu. In the Run dialog box, enter either the print server name or printer UNC. For instance, if you enter (without quotes) “\” and hit Enter, you’ll see a window listing all resources available on that server, shares and printers alike. To see only the printers, double-click the Printers and Faxes icon. Then it’s just a matter of going through the list to determine which printer you want to access. Entering the UNC in the Run dialog box connects theuser directly to that printer.

If users know where to look, they can also use click and drag instead of going through the wizard prompts. Expanding on the above Run command method, if you open the print server by entering the server name, you’ll see the list of the available printers on that server. You can then click and drag the printer into your Printers and Faxes folder on the local computer.

Use a Public Share Shortcut
The connection methods mentioned so far all depend on users having some knowledge of either the print server’s name or the printer’s name. What about those poor souls who have no idea at all? That question got me thinking, and I realized that most users know just enough about the network to do their jobs. Almost every workplace has some sort of public share that most if not all users can access—for instance, it’s the place where company policies and forms that all employees might need get housed. Most users can at least find this share. So I thought, why not give users a way to set up network printer connections using a location with whichthey’re already familiar?

To use this method, you can create a shortcut to your print server’s printers in that public share. Open two Windows Explorer windows, one with your public share open, the other with your print server open. Find the server’s Printers and Faxes icon, then right-click the icon and drag it to the public share’s window. Choose Create Shortcuts Here to place a shortcut on the public share, as Figure 3 shows. Now set the permissions on the shortcut so your users have Read & Execute permissions by right-clicking the shortcut and choosing Properties, Permissions.

If you have multiple print servers, repeat these steps to create a shortcut to each one’s printers. Now instruct your users to go to the public share to see all the network printers. After they open the shortcut, they simply have to right-click the printer they want to connect to and choose Connect. If the Connect command doesn’t appear, they’re already connected to that printer on that computer. Or if right-clicking throws them off, they can click the printer to highlight it, then choose File, Connect from the menu bar at the top of the Windows Explorer window.

I’ve found that most users prefer this last method. It doesn’t require them to remember any complicated names or UNCs. But no matter what your users’ experience level, you should find at least one of these methods will help them get connected to the right printer—all the time.

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