Jamming to a new tune: Transforming Microsoft’s printing infrastructure with Universal Print

Jan 14, 2021   |  

Most people don’t give much thought to printing.

In the best-case scenario, you select a button and your paper comes out. Other times, you might have to fiddle with locating printers, driver installations, and of course, the occasional paper jam. There are good reasons why this most humble of office essentials is also a common symbol of office frustrations.

IT administrators like Kathren Korsky think about printers a lot more than most.

As a senior service engineering manager for End User Services at Microsoft, Korsky oversees their organization’s printing strategy and infrastructure. That means maintaining print servers, ensuring connectivity, managing security permissions, and staying on top of compatibility issues with a broad network of third-party hardware partners.

It also means dealing with the security risk printer servers create.

How do printers create such challenges?

Before, anyone who wanted to print in a Microsoft office had to connect to Microsoft’s corporate network. That meant giving them VPN access just so they could print something.

“Corpnet is a very precious corporate asset, and VPN access ends up being a security liability,” Korsky says. “We must eliminate our print service dependency on VPN to achieve our strategic Zero Trust goals.”

Adding to these acute pains were the everyday aches of Microsoft branch offices without corpnet connections at all, where employees were severely constrained when attempting to print to a shared printer, not to mention the maintenance and high energy costs that physical servers consume.

Then about four years ago, Microsoft Digital began migrating all of its internal servers to the cloud, a project that transitioned 95 percent of its physical servers to Microsoft Azure virtual machines (VMs).

[Learn how Microsoft used Azure to retire hundreds of physical branch-office servers. Find out how Microsoft enabled secure and compliant engineering with Azure DevOps.]

Connecting printers to the cloud

Korsky’s team joined that cloud migration, and over four years they reduced the company’s 320 on-premises print servers around the world to around 80 Microsoft Azure print server VMs. The team benefited from Microsoft Azure’s security and management capabilities while achieving a print server uptime improvement to nearly 100 percent.

Korsky says the 70 hours per month their team formerly spent patching servers has been reduced to seven.

While the move to Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) delivered great benefits for the print service, that was not enough. The team needed a solution that could work completely in the public internet space and draw on the advantages of becoming a Platform as a Service (PaaS) approach, which was going to be the next step in the print service transformation.

Working together with Microsoft’s Azure + Edge Computing team, they experimented with a previous offering, Hybrid Cloud Print, but felt that more was needed to simplify the administrator’s experience.

Seeing an opportunity, Korsky and their team knew the moment was ripe for a major transformation that would not only greatly reduce their administrative overhead, but also eliminate those pesky corpnet dependencies while enabling public internet connectivity in a safe and secure way.

Working together, Microsoft Digital and Azure + Edge Computing teams built in robust management capabilities and easily accessible data insights and reporting, and a new printing experience called Universal Print was born.

As Universal Print began to roll out to groups across Microsoft, beginning with the Azure + Edge Computing team, one of the challenges was the wide variety of different brands, makes, and models of printers that would need to integrate with the service.

“We as a product group wanted to support a broad set of currently available printers in market, and some of them are quite old,” says Jimmy Wu, a senior program manager for Azure + Edge Computing who worked with Korsky’s team to deploy Universal Print into the Microsoft infrastructure. “The challenge was how do we do that when our service isn’t even publicly available at the time.”

As a solution, they created a piece of connector software that served as a communication proxy between the physical printer and the cloud service. It’s now available to customers as part of their Universal Print subscription.

With the migration and product rollout complete, Universal Print was validated in private preview by Microsoft customers who also saw a need for a cloud print service. It then moved into public preview in July.

Printers are now being published in Microsoft Azure Active Directory through a centralized portal, with little need for on-premises infrastructure or maintenance.

What’s more, the elimination of on-premises servers and all the physical space, energy consumption and cooling systems that go with it help support Microsoft’s commitment to achieve carbon negativity by 2050.

For branch office managers grappling with whether to invest in costly corporate network setups, Korsky says, “it solves for some real business decisions that companies have to make about branch office locations.”

And the employee who just needs to print? They can think about it even less.

“What’s really great is that our users benefit from a seamless, familiar print experience,” Korsky says. Users click a button and their paper comes out—without all the interference of printer discovery, network permissions and driver installations standing in their way.

Universal Print in a remote world

The ability to print via the cloud has proven to be an unexpected boon to businesses and organizations who have had to quickly adapt to operating remotely.

Alan Meeus, a product marketing manager for Microsoft 365 Modern Work, says that of the more than 2,000 external customers currently testing Universal Print, many have accelerated their adoption amid COVID-19.

“Even with people working remotely, there are many use cases for why print is still important,” Meeus says. “There’s a lot of printing going on in critical industries like healthcare, manufacturing, distribution and education. In schools, some kids don’t have access to computers and they still rely a lot on printed materials.”

Universal Print has also helped enable Microsoft 365 users to perform work functions at home that they previously couldn’t.

“If our HR or payroll department needs to run checks, they can do that from home,” says Scott Hetherington, a senior systems analyst for the Wild Rose School Division in Alberta, Canada. “Being able to give them Universal Print right now has been a lifesaver. And it’s been able to help keep people safe in the face of a pandemic by keeping them home as much as possible.”

As more organizations ramp up adoption, the Universal Print team and their partners are looking forward to cultivating a circular feedback loop where they’re gathering feedback from the community and delivering the kinds of improvements customers want. They’re also working towards a longer-term vision of evolving from the IaaS cloud service model for the connector software to going completely serverless, requiring no infrastructure management at all.

For Korsky, it’s all about the growth mindset.

“This has been an amazing journey of experimentation to learn what works well and where changes are required. And we’re partnering in a more collaborative way,” Korsky says. “We took our learnings from Hybrid Cloud Print and came up with this whole new approach that is even better than we originally envisioned, and we’re having great success.”

The printing transformation is making a difference with Korsky’s peers across Microsoft.

“My team’s amazing partnerships with engineering teams across Microsoft allow us to develop impactful internal solutions that also benefit our customers,” says Dan Perkins, a principal service engineering manager in Microsoft Digital’s End User Services. “Universal Print simplifies how we manage our work and reduces the time we spend maintaining our infrastructure. It also improves the security of our print service. We are excited about what the future holds for this transformational offering.”

With its general availability release slated for Spring 2021, Universal Print will be part of Microsoft 365 and Business Premium. Microsoft 365 customers who would like to try Universal Print now in their organizations can start at https://aka.ms/UP_TryNow.

Learn how Microsoft used Azure to retire hundreds of physical branch-office servers.

Find out how Microsoft enabled secure and compliant engineering with Azure DevOps.

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