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TELECOM: MAKING THE CONNECTION

Nov 1, 1998 12:00 AM


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The whole world is impatient and everybody wants instant gratification. The sooner printers and prepress providers realize this, the sooner they can stop debating the need for a high-speed file transfer system and install one.

This is the pervading wisdom for an industry now besieged with the notion that time is of the essence and competitive steps today toward digital workflow efficiencies and faster turnarounds will govern future survival.

"There are still a great number of printers afraid to jump into telecommunications and the marketplace itself has grown to a very confusing morass, but they need to understand the situation is not going to change," stresses David L. Zwang, an industry consultant in Connecticut who has been closely following digital connectivity trends. "From my perspective, the issue is nothing other than trying to develop and strengthen the relationship between you and your customer. That's what telecom is all about. If you're not Time-Life or R.R. Donnelley, start off slow, but by all means, get started."

By moving and managing graphics data and workflows electronically via high-speed telecom links, printers can realize a plethora of benefits, the most obvious being the ability to dramatically cut production times by sidestepping the need for costly courier and overnight delivery services transporting disks. Advanced applications include remote or soft proofing, digital asset management, interactive page mark-up and video conferencing.

What makes telecommunications technology so exciting and intimidating at the same time is a burgeoning and bewildering array of hardware, software and service-provider choices that vary in complexity and continue to evolve as the technology matures.

"Digital connectivity is kind of like heaven--you want to talk about it but you don't really want to go there," says Brad Giles, co-founder of Digital Art Exchange (DAX), Boston, one of the major players providing graphic arts firms with telecommunication software and integration services. He assures telecom will be as commonplace as FedEx and UPS within a few years.

"What I remind people of is the fax machine," says Giles, a 20-year veteran of the printing industry. "A lot of printers shied away from it because they didn't think there was a need for it. Then all of a sudden one day a huge gun is pointed at them because they don't have a fax machine and a $100,000 print job is ready to go sideways. The same thing is happening now. We have printers calling us, saying, "Help! My customer says in order for me to do business with him I need an FTP site. What do I do?' So I would hope people have learned the lessons of the past and will start to take some proactive steps before their lives are turned upside down by this technology."

Andy Lewis, the founder and director of marketing and sales for Group Logic (Arlington, VA), a provider of telecommunications software to the graphic arts industry, stresses that it really doesn't matter what solution a printer goes with initially as long as it is modular, easy to operate and gives users the flexibility to change and adapt as the market and customer needs change.

"The No. 1 point I stress is to get involved in some way now--whether it's Internet or ISDN--and start trying this out with a few customers. Telecommunications is going to dramatically change workflows and printers need to be on the bandwagon or be left behind," says Lewis. "Once you get to a base level, transferring data from point A to B, start adding more and more value over that connection because that's the way you're going to differentiate services. Telecom needs to be viewed as an ongoing project to offer customers the best product."

In other words, it's not about simply adding digital technologies to the old ways of doing business; it's a matter of leveraging digital technologies to spawn new types of customer relationships and products. What's really required is to rethink workflow strategies--how smoothly you can hustle information through the shop with the highest degree of quality and least number of errors.

Of course, any cost-conscious printer must evaluate the price of each telecom method against conceivable usage. This can be done by estimating three primary factors: volume of data likely to be sent each month, frequency of that data and turnaround requirements.

While E-mail is supplanting the fax for transmitting small text or image files as attachments, ISDN has emerged as the graphic arts industry's pre-eminent connectivity choice for large page and image files because of its availability, affordability (low fixed cost) and scaleability (choice of bandwidths from the basic rate of 128 Kbps to 1.544 Mbps). Shops that routinely handle gigabytes of data are likely to lease dedicated point-to-point T1/T3 lines for fixed connections at a fixed monthly price.

Because of the complexity of setting up and operating ISDN and T1/T3 lines, many graphic arts firms have turned to turnkey services such as DAX, WAM!NET (now incorporating 4-Sight for lower-volume requirements) and newcomer Vio. Their selling point is they take the hassle out of installing and maintaining a company's telecommunications networks.

"Printers are really out of their comfort zone the minute you start to talk about becoming digital between sites as opposed to within their own site. All the technical jargon can be very alien to them," observes Lyndon Stickley, European marketing director for WAM!NET. "What we do is answer printers' inquiries and worries in print speak, responding with an understanding of their real workflow issues. Instead of bytes and kilobytes, we talk PostScript and PDF."

WAM!NET of Minneapolis is a fully managed digital delivery network designed specifically for graphics arts firms. Priced by the megabyte for a monthly fee, it requires no up front cash outlay for equipment.

Currently, in the effort to entice new subscribers (there are more than 2,050 in North America) to the WAM!NET network, free membership for all of 1999 is being offered to anyone who signs on with the service by the end of this year.

One subscriber of two years, Arandell Corp. (Menomonee Falls, WI), finds WAM!NET a "perfect fit" for the firm and its customers. The large web offset catalog producer and distributor's upscale retail clients include Sak's, Neiman-Marcus, Macy's and Lord & Taylor.

"We like it because it's very hands-off, very reliable--we don't have to worry about ISDN lines cutting off midway through a transmission," says David Koteski, digital imaging technical sales manager for the 76-year-old family-run operation with $185 million in annual sales. "WAM!NET maintains all the hardware and when there's a problem with our service we hear about it from them before we discover it ourselves. They're constantly monitoring, making sure everything runs properly."

Arandell now receives high-res images and TIFF-IT files digitally from about 40 of their customers. Also, it regularly exchanges files with other big printers who are doing varying versions of the same company catalogs. "A lot of our clientele also prints with big companies such as Quad and Donnelley and they're all on WAM!NET. That makes it convenient to transfer files back and forth. What's also great is when we forward a catalog's common pages to these other printers. We send it once, but the file automatically goes to multiple locations."

Also an ISDN user for the past three years, Arandell has seen the greatest rewards from digital connectivity come in the area of workflow efficiencies. "If we have a problem on press, we don't have to wait until tomorrow to get the correct file back on press," he explains. "We can get that file within an hour. If we've got a job going on press at 7:00 the next morning we can still receive those files late into the evening and have them ready on press, on schedule, without waiting for FedEx."

Another popular turnkey solution is DAX, offering customers' scaleable bandwidth solutions for a variety of standard "open" protocols--ISDN, Internet, T1, FTP and frame relay. DAX integrates AT&T's high-speed digital network with industry standard hardware and software to provide complete communications technology, installation, marketing and customer support. Basically, clients relate what they want to accomplish with their individual system and DAX determines bandwidth needs, orders the lines, configures and tests the system, and trains employees.

DAX iSeries consists of three Internet-based options, Transport 800I, 200I, and 200Fi, intended for varying user needs, from simple E-mail and Web hosting to large-file delivery, available via dial-up ISDN BRI or flat-rate dedicated circuit.

"With ISDN dial-up phone line service, the cost to move the data at fairly high speeds is literally pennies per megabyte so it can be very good in an arena in which you have a lot of local customers who have low to medium bandwidth requirements," explains Giles.

Low bandwidth handles transmissions of 5 to 15 megabytes, medium bandwidth handles up to 75 megabytes and anything over 75 megabytes is considered large volume, explains Giles. "That can be sliced and diced a couple of ways with the amount of transmissions in a day, week or month." For graphics arts providers regularly sending large quantities of data to groups of sites, dedicated connections of at least 128Kbps and up to T1 should be chosen for their relatively high throughput speed and reliability with larger files.

At Digital Color Network (DCN), a prepress operation housed inside Creo Printing (Las Vegas), the need to quickly send high-res data back and forth to advertising agencies across the state and in California led both DCN and the agencies to hook up to the DAX Transport series. DCN has a fragmented T1 line.

Operations manager Barry Harvey reports enormous costs savings in terms of project speed and efficiency while maintaining complete integrity of the images. "The great thing is we found agency people picked this up very quickly--anyone who can work in Photoshop can do this with ease," says Harvey. "What we're looking at in the near future is a situation in which agencies will send their clients high-res screen images for them to okay digitally and make corrections right over the open fragmented T1 line."

PRI (Primary Rate Interface, also known as high bandwidth ISDN) fits high volume requirements and is appropriate for releasing high-res scans, digital camera files, larger volumes of layout pages, and for sending or receiving remote digital color proofs.

"The idea is to have a big pipe so multiple smaller pipes can feed in and out of it," says Giles. "We typically find that once you have seven to 10 customers who want to hook up over ISDN, you want to look at a Primary Rate circuit."

Altavista Printing (Altavista, VA), a mid-sized commercial sheet-fed firm, has experienced dramatic improvements in the way it works with out-of-town customers since commissioning DAX a year ago to install a fractional, point-to-point leased T1 line. They've even gained new business as a result.

"Altavista is a small town that doesn't yet have ISDN and digital services available through the phone company, but 60 percent of our work comes from the Vienna area (191 miles away)," explains Todd Shelhorse, electronic prepress manager for the mid-sized printer of full-color magazines, brochures, flyers and direct mail. "So DAX solved two problems for us. They got us out of Altavista by giving us a pipe (512Kbps) to our (Vienna sales) office and from that office we were able to branch out to customers via dial-up ISDN."

Using Cisco routers at customer sites, the initial set-up was $10,000 and the monthly bill for Altavista is $100 to $200. Altavista carries the cost of installing the lines for their larger clients.

"We believe that the money we spend in equipment and monthly rates is offset by the amount of business our large clients do with us and the ease with which they can send a file," says Shelhorse. "It just makes dealing with important clients so much easier. They never have to worry about problems with the Internet--will the file make it here? Those are all non-issues."

For those customers who don't have ISDN capabilities, the company has set-up a preflight workstation in the Vienna office that allows them to use the clients' disk, preflight the job and send it across the T1 line at about four megabytes per minute to the Altavista plant.

"We use that preflight station more than anything and because we've made it so much easier to deal with customers remotely, with tight deadlines becoming less of an issue, it's brought in more business," testifies Shelhorse. For the many people who still share the misperception that a "T1 line is just a bigger and better ISDN," Giles says clearing up the confusion is a matter of focusing on software, not the actual phone cable.

"I'm always telling people not to focus on the cable--that's the dumbest thing to look at from a whole scenario standpoint," he says. "You need to think of the wire that is plugged into the phone closet as an unformatted floppy disk. It's just a raw piece of copper. The software makes (the connections) what they are."

As for DSL technology, considered a lower-cost alternative to T1 for short-haul connections, it was designed by the phone company to take advantage of existing copper available to them today.

DSL technology transforms an existing voice-carrying telephone line into a high-speed digital link. "While DSL was recently changed to support incoming and outgoing traffic at the same speed, which is a very good thing, one of the challenges right now is some of the equipment being made to support DSL doesn't talk to some of the other equipment," says Giles. "So it's kind of like the early days of the fax machine when people with different brands of machines couldn't talk to each other. This problem should be corrected in the short-term, not the long-term, but it is an issue right now."

The bigger issue right now is the use of the Internet by printers and prepress providers with more than casual digital communication needs. While DAX stresses the flexibility, affordability and operational ease of the Internet, WAM!NET warns against lack of guarantees on speed, security or data integrity.

"The question I like to pose to people is, "Why is it that if you can mail a letter from L.A. to New York for $.50, you contemplate paying $25 to send it FedEx?' " says Stickley of WAM!NET. "The answer I always get is they want to be sure it gets there and they want to make sure it gets there when they need it to be there. It's the same thing with the Internet. If you really need a file to be somewhere and it is 25 MG, you will not use the Internet no matter how cheap it is because cheap isn't the issue --guarantee is the issue."

Stickley insists WAM!NET is not a proprietary system; rather it's a worldwide global network using TCP/IP (Internet standard of protocol).

"The system is private in that not every man and his dog can use it and abuse it without us managing their service," he explains. "By that fact we can manage the bandwidths and provisioning of that network so it doesn't get overloaded and backfire on clients. With a totally open public network such as the Internet, there's far too much traffic and not enough bandwidth, so you lose control."

While Giles admits there are still glitches with the Internet, he points out the fact that billions of dollars are now being poured into Internet infrastructures to provide more fiberoptics and available bandwidth for moving large files.

"Already people in corporate America are starting to talk about running your voice over your IP (Internet provider) address--using the Internet to run phone calls," says Giles.

Recently entering the mix of telecom network options is BT and Scitex Corp.'s Vio, launched at IPEX 98 in September. Vio, a TCP/IP-based managed network already tested in Europe, offers an open system approach using Internet-based technologies.

Vio is a store- and-retrieve operation so files can be sent or retrieved at any time. Not only does this eliminate the frustration of attempting file transfers to an engaged ISDN user, it permits clients the option of configuring the service to retrieve files automatically into individual job folders in a "store and forward" operation.

Another application, Renderview, allows multiple users in real-time to remotely view and annotate, at pixel resolution, files held on the Vio server.

Also in September, DAX formed a strategic alliance with Hermstedt, Inc. (Marblehead, MA) to offer secure, point-to-point file transfers with three Hermstedt Business Plus ISDN solutions, as well as its Network ISDN package. DAX offers two, four or eight channel BRI capability providing file delivery speeds between 128Kbps and 512 Kbps.

Contained within the Business Plus solutions is Grand Central Pro software, touting guaranteed file transfer to virtually any ISDN workstation.

"The beauty is users don't have to bother double-checking every transfer," explains Burke McCarthy, president of Hermstedt. "What we've done is made it just like a fax machine where you get a confirmation that the transmission has been made. Literally, all you need to do is take a file, drag and drop it into a folder and transmission takes place automatically."

Another file transfer manager software popular for its ease of use and flexibility is Group Logic's MassTransit, which can actually communicate with Grand Central Pro under the Business Plus ISDN.

MassTransit gave Transcontinental Printing (Vancouver, BC) the ability to link digitally with its customers across the border using a single server to manage all its ISDN connections for file transfer and remote proofing. The result has been a lot headaches saved on both ends, says John Walsh, prepress manager for the retail magazine and flyer printer.

"We went from receiving a disk on a Friday night (for a Monday morning job deadline), with a hope and a prayer that it got through customs, to now, where the customer just sits down at the computer, drops and drags his file into the MassTransit folder and "Bingo!' it's here," says Walsh. "The ease of it has made it a real no-brainer for everyone concerned."

As a way to lull their hesitant clients into the world of telecom, State Printing (Columbia, SC), a subsidiary of Wallace Computer Systems, has been installing at customer sites MassTransit's customizable digital delivery management software, called SPC Transit. It gives customers the option of accessing State Printing using modem, ISDN, T1 and frame relay links.

"We have 25 to 30 customers now set up through this program and most of them connect through the Internet using ISDN," reports Eddie Albert, director of electronic prepress support for the commercial sheet-fed printer. "We have the server connected to the Internet through a fractional T1 line that gives us the ability to serve more than one customer at a time."

With the drag-and-drop feature, customer concern about ease of use quickly vanishes.

"Actually the search for something easier to use led us to this system as much as anything," says Albert, explaining that State Printing originally had a bulletin board service. "What I've learned is that if you don't make something as foolproof as possible, the first time problems occur customers will give up on digital connectivity. But the fact that we've shown them how easy it can be has really put us ahead of the game in our area of the country."

The overwhelming message, especially with the future promise of ADSL, wireless networking and direct satellite communication, is that workflow represents the single most significant business opportunity in the industry and the world today. Indeed, its the sword printers will likely either live or die by.

ADSL--(Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line) A high-speed modem technology. Fractional T1--One or more channels of a T1 service. Frame Relay--A fast packet technology that resides on top of a circuit, such as a T1.

FTP--(File Transfer Protocol) A standard for transferring files over the Internet that relies on TCP/IP and open packet interpretation protocols.

ISDN--(Integrated Services Digital Network) ISDN is a set of digital transmission protocols that are accepted by virtually all the world's communication carriers as standard.

Mbps--(megabits per second) 1,048,576 bits per second. Protocol--An agreed upon, endorsed standard such as TCP/IP. Router--A specialized computer that provides all the necessary networking communications hardware and software to send or receive data on interconnected networks.

T1 line--A digital line capable of carrying either voice or data over which a number of services are currently offered.

T3 line--A dedicated phone connection supporting data rates of about 43 mbps.

TCP/IP--(Transfer Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) The standard network protocol for Internet and World Wide Web transmissions.

For more detailed definitions, refer to "Transmission Possible," American Printer, August 1996. Also, DAX offers an online glossary at www.dax-it.com/