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WEIGHING TELECOMM CHOICES

Oct 1, 1997 12:00 AM


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Gary Thomas is happy that his new telecommunications file transfer system was up and running in a single day--but only, he adds, after 12 months of research!

Is Thomas, the systems manager for Embassy Graphics (Winnepeg, Manitoba), typical in his long-term quest for the grail of telecomm knowledge? How much should a manager know before taking the leap into this complex area?

We asked a number of seasoned telecomm and file transfer veterans for comments on how to manage this key process. To simplify matters, this article does not attempt to survey every telecomm option: excluded here for the sake of space are wireless devices, satellite networks and cable modems.

With file sizes creeping up on one end of the process and deadlines tightening at the other, many commercial printers and prepress shops are confronting a key question: "Do you want your customers to drive the decision on a telecomm solution or do you want to drive it yourself?"

In many cases, it is indeed customer-driven, comments Neil O'Callaghan, vice president of technology management with Applied Graphics Technologies (AGI), a New York-based outsourced image management company. That was not the case for AGT's decision to chooseWAM!Net, however, he explains. With 10 domestic satellites on the roofs of its partner-printers, AGT looked at the WAM!Net connection as purely a business issue, especially the issue of ubiquity, i.e., is the service available to most customers, regardless of geography?

"We decided that going with WAM!Net was a way of offering new value-added to our customer base, rather than viewing it as some kind of competition to our own network," O'Callaghan goes on. "Suddenly we could connect to 50 plants instead of a dozen."

Brad Giles agrees that the decision to be proactive (rather than customer-driven) is key to this process. Giles is vice president of sales for the Digital Ad Exchange (DAX) in Boston, an ISDN integrator specializing in products from 4-Sight (Woburn, MA).

Giles definitely recommends that his printer clients be proactive about seeking out answers to remain in control "down the digital path" with their customers.

He compares telecomm choices to the recent chaos of removable storage formats: shops had to own one of every kind of drive in order to accommodate the varying storage choices of their customers. That's not a situation printers want to have with telecomm, he argues.

Instead, Giles first asks his clients about their long-term business strategy: "Are they looking at picking up more big iron? To drive direct-to-plate on a new Komori might mean getting a large 'pipe' that can feed in files from multiple sites.

"Or do they want to be involved in digital asset management? That would call for easy dial-up capabilities at the IP [Internet provider] level. So depending on the long-term business strategy, we might create very different telecomm strategy recommendations," Giles notes.

Once the big picture is clearer, Giles asks his client-printer to calculate average monthly incoming file sizes. That is, "if a printer considers all FedEx packages for one month and totals up the number of megabytes (and pages) transferred, what range of numbers would he or she get? The total number is important, whether that's four customers with 100 MB each or 100 customers with 4 MB each.

"Amazingly, very few shops have ever figured out roughly how many megs they're moving around," Giles reports.

When that's done, he looks at the connectivity needs of both the printer's site and his or her customers' sites. It's not unusual for a printer to make calls on customers with DAX personnel, simply to explain thoroughly how the new telecomm options work and their requirements.

"A typical timeline for customers is six to eight months before they really start seeing the benefits," Giles adds. He's referring to easier production workflows, cost reductions, capturing more business because of the new capabilities, salespeople beginning to sell the advantages, etc.

Just which decision factors matter most depends on what business you're in. Example: Embassy's Thomas doesn't view telecomm as a cost reduction strategy, but as a solution to his geographical problem. He has a production facility in Manitoba and salespeople across North America. "For us, the motivation to add telecomm capabilities was the need to make the distance disappear," Thomas stresses.

After installing an ISDN line with Group Logic's MassTransit front-end package, Thomas could offer his customers new "night-before" production lead times--that is, the night before any film is run. Embassy, a magazine and book printer with 40 employees, uses the system to transmit low-res scans (amounting to 50MB to 60MB per project) to customers.

Undoubtedly, argues 4-Sight's president Lyndon Stickley, the combined benefits from cutting out the FedEx overnight cycle--17 hours per job gained "without changing anything in your workflow"--plus the savings from eliminating most of your bills for courier services and removable media --appeal to many shops. Also eliminated is the risk of corrupt or lost media, any international custom problems, etc.

An example of the proactive approach to telecomm choices urged by Giles is Charles P. Young Printing in Houston (TX). The company, a memberof the Consolidated Graphics group, is a financial printer with 150 employees in three Southwestern locations. Jim Gary, the firm's manager of Internet services, became interested in file transfer options a few years ago through the National Science Foundation's Town Hall project to make SEC data publicly available--that is, downloadable. For Young's financial printing customers, Gary could see this on-line source for its business coming soon.

In fact, e-mail now is the primary job delivery method for Young's financial customers, reports Gary. Overnight service is normal, with quantities typically running in the tens of thousands. (Gary claims one customer was a walk-in with a request for a 45-minute turnaround on his monochrome order. Young met the deadline.)

Young is a member of the FP-Net group, financial printers who market their services with a national shared Web site (www.fp-net.com).

As sometimes happens with new technologies, Young's Gary has a new line of business to offer his customers--hosting their Web sites. Not that Gary is free to get involved with his customers too freely: "We have to have firewalls in financial printing," he notes. "We just can't afford to lose data anywhere or have it go astray."

While being proactive is fine, some experts also urge a certain amount of caution in this volatile technology arena. "Talk to lots of people," advises Mike Gold, president of CNI Corp., a Milford, NH-based systems-integrator specializing in the graphic arts. "And avoid sudden leaps. Anything good usually 'increments' its way to acceptance." He says overbuying and buying too early are two common mistakes with technology.

On the customer side, do some analysis of "peak periods." If the customer wants to send you 10MB of data every Thursday at 5 p.m., does that mean the company has one meg ready for transmission every hour starting at noon that same day?

"Start an internal company project for remote file transfers," Gold advises. "As a next step, don't be afraid to make a customer part of the learning process: share both answers and questions so you won't feel as if you have to do it all on your own."

No doubt quite a few companies in the graphic arts industry are watching the proposed merger between MCI and British Telecomm (BT) with great interest. After all, it's a global network backbone in the making, with coverage of markets in the U.S., Western Europe, Asia and Australia.

Even more interesting was news last April of a pilot project for a Digital Graphic Network, in which the two telecomm giants were joined by Scitex in order to create a global graphic arts and printing "connected community."

A number of the larger commercial printers in North America have signed up for this pilot phase of the project, which links companies across the graphic arts industries, including publishers, trade shops, ad agencies, corporate marketing departments and others.

"One of the most interesting benefits for, say, a small commercial printer in Alabama will be the ability to 'export' services to the London or Singapore markets," points out Robert Carmosino, sales director, national accounts/publishing with Scitex. Another will be the ability to do business on a secure network, which the DGN players see as preferable to the insecure environment of that other global network, the Internet .

By mid-1998, Carmosino foresees Scitex bringing its vertical industry expertise to bear in a number of applications for the DGN, such as functionality for printing on-demand, remote proofing and remote ad transmission, as well as hi-res image access and transfer. Another aspect of the full version of the service will be electronic job tickets and preflighting features.

"This network will be open, by which we mean independent in terms of hardware, platform, file type and operating system. The customer will use an Internet-like browser to access a service that will be entirely transparent--a kind of digital Federal Express," Carmosino observes.

DGN is contemplating using a tiered three-speed approach based on existing BT and MCI technologies, including SMDS, Frame Relay and ATM. Customers will be able to select rates of 384Kbps (smaller users), 2Mbps (mid-range customers) or 8Mbps (large customers). The monthly subscription fee will include an allocation of free transfer and storage, after which per-megabyte charges will apply.

Exactly what equipment a customer will need for DGN access is still under discussion, according to Carmosino.

At the recent DGITA (Digital Graphic Imaging Technical Assn.) meeting in Baltimore, Bill Gibson, president of Niwot Networks, demonstrated that he knows the attraction of the Internet--it's free information transfer. His Gigabyte Express product, tied to a high-speed digital line, turned in impressive meg-per-minute numbers, in the range of 1.5 megabytes every three minutes between Baltimore and Boulder (CO)--with no long distance charges.

But Gibson also knows that the Infobahn has occasional "rush hours." At those times, Gibson recommends turning off the highway and taking a gravel side road to get home--a bypass strategy he also demonstrated at DGITA. Here's how the "Internet + Bypass" approach works.

First, the Internet route. Gibson recommends using a Windows NT server to become a "do-it-yourself" ISP (Internet Service Provider), supporting a direct connection to the Internet. In Colorado, for example, a full-time 128 Kbps Internet connection is $300 monthly, plus another $70 monthly for an ISDN line. "One way to think of that is $370 for the first megabyte transferred, and the remainder of the megs that month are free," Gibson suggests.

When using Gigabyte Express (which runs on Mac and all major Windows platforms) for Internet file transfers, the user also gets the speed advantages of the product's built-in on-the-fly STAC (LZS) compression.

Result: with 1.5:1 compressible files and 64Kbps access, the user on the (uncrowded) Internet gets .6 MB per minute. (With a T1 connection, the user would transfer 8 MB per minute in this way.)

Sure, but what about rush hour? Gibson recommends taking the bypass route: dial your customer (and incur some usage charges), but still achieve a transfer rate (with ISDN BRI) of about 1.1 MB per minute.