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ePrint system suffers from malfunctions

The Office of Information Technology responded to students’ concerns over malfunctioning printers around campus. OIT says the sheer size of the system, which incldues more than 145 printers, makes occasional errors impossible to mitigate. Most errors are recognized and fixed immediately through routine screening.
The Office of Information Technology responded to students’ concerns over malfunctioning printers around campus. OIT says the sheer size of the system, which incldues more than 145 printers, makes occasional errors impossible to mitigate. Most errors are recognized and fixed immediately through routine screening.

Receiving an error message instead of a printout has annoyed more than a few ePrint users.

The program, which printed nearly 30 million pages for members of the Duke community between July 2009 and July 2010, is noted for its convenience, but malfunctions frustrate some users that have come to rely on the service.

“It is pretty annoying when you really need to print and it doesn’t work,” said freshman Hannah Ward.

Despite these problems, Duke’s Office of Information Technology, which monitors the entire ePrint system, insists that these problems are inevitable given the large printing demand. Since its inception in 2003, the system has grown to include 145 printers, said Steve O’Donnell, senior communications strategist at OIT.

“At any given time, there are going to be a few printers off line,” said Carl McMillon, director of computer operations at OIT. “That’s the nature of maintaining such a distributed system in an environment where the customers are printing around the clock.”

Responding to concerns

As of last Fall, the OIT website provides the status of 52 OIT-maintained printers that are publicly available on the system. Those printing stations are polled every five minutes, according to the website.

At around 8 p.m. Monday, seven of the printers listed on the site were deemed “inoperable,” including a printer in the Perkins Library lobby and a printer in the Link. Another 23 printers were marked as “running low on paper or [having] other non-critical issues.”

The 93 other printers not listed on the OIT website are assigned to specific departments. Each department commissions OIT to provide the printers and support for the ePrint system, but the status of those printers are not listed on the website because those devices are not publicly accessible.

Even though OIT publishes information about inoperable printers, some students have indicated that ePrint’s technical problems outweigh its convenience.

“I’ve had problems with the software itself,” said freshman Anand Kornepati. “I think it’s better to have your own printer.”

O’Donnell noted that OIT has received an average of five help requests per week during this semester, an amount he called “typical” when students are on campus.

Ben Clark, manager of computer operations at OIT, said most issues are detected through routine system monitoring and fixed before users submit requests.

With individual printer outages, OIT will respond in one to four hours or as long as a day, “depending on the nature of the problem,” Clark added.

“A low-priority issue, such as one printer in a bank of printers being out of paper or toner, may take us 24 hours to address,” Clark said, adding that staff respond to higher priority issues in a more timely manner.

Although OIT staff maintain many printers on campus, most printers located within the library system are serviced by Duke Libraries staff. Students printing in the libraries may need to direct their concerns to the circulation desk, Clark said.

Up until “complete mechanical failure” of the printer, Duke Libraries is responsible for fixing the problems with nearly all ePrint stations in the libraries, said George Ward, an information technology analyst for Duke Libraries.

OIT also replaces a large portion of the public access printers every year based on a planned refresh cycle, O’Donnell said. But as the University has been forced to make cuts, the replacement now takes place every four years as opposed to every three years, O’Donnell added.

Duke Administrative Reform Team cuts, which targeted inefficiencies in an effort to reduce expenses in the University’s operating budget, began in 2009.

A growing system

Despite complaints about ePrint, McMillon pointed out that more departments are converting their printers to the ePrint system.

Implementation of ePrint in different parts of the University has been student-driven, Ward said.

“Students got to be familiar with it and wanted it—we got requests from more departments,” he said.

Some programs have opted out, however. The Fuqua School of Business, for example, has not joined the ePrint system.

“We just haven’t had the paper usage,” said Kevin Smith, director of technical support at Fuqua, adding that the start-up cost—about $1,500 per ePrint-enabled printer—discouraged the school from implementing the system.

Smith noted, however, that potential technical problems were not a deterrent to implementing ePrint at Fuqua. Should paper usage increase at the school, Smith said “we would definitely look at ePrint.”

“An enterprise printing solution”

The printing system was originally implemented as a pilot program in 2003. Prior to that, Duke Libraries and OIT made free printing available in the computer labs and libraries, McMillon said.

Although ePrint has been touted for its convenience, a major reason it was initially implemented was actually to reduce the quantity of paper used in printing, said Molly Tamarkin, associate librarian for information technology at Duke Libraries.

“As an enterprise printing solution, we thought that ePrint could reduce the rate of increase in printing,” Tamarkin said.

Implementing ePrint allows the creation of a quota system that would encourage students to print as needed and discourage waste, she added.

Similar printing programs have been installed at peer institutions, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

UNC has used this sort of technology since 1995, said Mike Freeman, director of auxiliary services at UNC.

UNC students also encounter similar printer malfunctions as those witnessed at Duke.

“Auxiliary Services is very prompt about fixing broken printers, but the printers seem to break all the time,” said UNC sophomore Callie Bost.

Still, ePrint users at Duke admit that ePrint as a whole is very convenient.

“ePrint does a lot of good things,” said junior Esther Showalter. “Usually you can fix the printer problems yourself.”

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