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Here, There, and Everywhere

Wide Format Software Moves to the Cloud

By Cassandra Balentine

As many are already aware, cloud-based applications are hosted fully or partly via the Web. A move to the cloud is apparent across many software products. Depending on a print service provider’s (PSP’s) role and target market within the graphic arts, cloud functions are utilized for software solutions such as Web to print (W2P) storefronts and soft proofing interfaces. As Web-based ordering and automated workflow components become increasingly important to wide format print operations, cloud options are emerging.

 

“The ability to extend business capabilities to your sales team and customers is critical in today’s business world,” notes Gerald Walsh, director of market development, productivity software, EFI. “Print buyers live in a digital, on demand world and they expect the same from their vendors. An inability to offer the service, speed, and accuracy of a well designed solution set will have a long-term impact on your success,” he adds.

 

The benefits of cloud-based, Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions consist of the ability to update and upgrade with ease—with little to no upfront cost. Primary challenges include security and integration with other systems. The future presents a number of cloud options, so it is important to understand the benefits and limitations.

 

Integration Capabilities

The integration capabilities of end-to-end workflow software, including functions such as estimating, color management, job tracking, and proofing, are essential to efficiency and productivity within a print environment. If utilized properly, production software—whether in the cloud or not—is designed to facilitate communication between these components. In some instances, the cloud extends these abilities.

 

“Workflow is all about eliminating steps and reducing the ability for mistakes, both of which can be improved with cloud-based components,” says Dean Derhak, product director, SA International (SAi). “Integrating these workflow capabilities with cloud-based components makes them work better across component providers, which is ultimately what PSPs need,” he adds.

 

Steven Ciesemier, account manager, Aleyant Systems, LLC, notes that the data exchange between various workflow systems results in a more seamless and efficient workflow. He explains that one popular method is an open standard, XML Web Services. If the vendor’s software supports an API for XML Web Services, there is a good possibility the software can be connected directly to other systems that support this standard.

 

Lacking this direct data exchange approach, another option is the use of hotfolders to push job files from one application to another.

 

“One challenge to this hotfolder approach is getting the order data and job files from the cloud into a production software system’s hotfolder without having a person touch the job. The biggest hurdle comes when one of the vendors in a PSP’s software eco-system refuses to allow their system to integrate with others or simply lacks the technical know-how to facilitate integration. That vendor’s system then becomes a bottleneck in the seamless flow of data and files,” explains Ciesemier.

 

The challenge becomes getting providers to adopt cloud capabilities and open standards to enable the cloud’s full potential.

 

Stephen McWilliam, EVP, Avanti Systems, suggests that in the past, integrating applications across the Web was more challenging, but it is becoming less of an issue now that vendors have had a chance to work together on building out the “handshakes” between systems.

 

In the Shop

While SaaS is admittedly on the horizon for many vendors serving the wide format graphic arts, a few already adopted the technology early on and promote its availability today.

 

Agfa Graphics offers Asanti Suite, a new workflow system for wide format printing. The solution made its North American debut this past Fall. The product family consists of the cloud-based Asanti StoreFront W2P solution and the on-premise Asanti Workflow server. The server recently began shipping with the company’s Anapurna and Jeti print engines in January.

 

Agfa offers cloud-based solutions in several markets, with Asanti StoreFront being the first specifically dedicated to wide format. According to Mark Gallucci, manager technology marketing, Agfa, cloud-based products are easy to deploy and maintain, have an affordable startup cost, and are accessible from anywhere. PSPs are relieved from the burden of managing infrastructure and enjoy greater efficiency in production.

 

Aleyant offers Pressero W2P ecommerce storefront systems, Automated Workflow Integrator, and eDocBuilder online variable data software. Pressero and eDocBuilder are fully based in the cloud. The Automated Workflow Integrator is used as a bridge from cloud-based systems to the production floor as a way to automatically retrieve order files from the cloud.

 

Avanti offers its Slingshot solution, print management information software for estimating, job tracking, and billing. It is available as both a cloud offering and an on-premise platform. “We’re all about choice, customers can choose to deploy Slingshot on their servers on their premise, but we encourage and prefer they deploy in the cloud,” remarks McWilliam.

 

PressWise is a total workflow solution by Datatech SmartSoft Inc., designed as a cloud-based system. “From the beginning, PressWise was designed to be a complete, end-to-end solution—from estimating and order entry through to shipping and fulfillment. But it doesn’t end there, PressWise APIs make it easy to integrate most third-party applications—such as third-party storefronts, accounting systems, and custom-written software—seamlessly into a workflow,” shares Tony Tarpey, VP, marketing, Datatech SmartSoft.

 

“We built PressWise as a cloud-based SaaS because we believe it is the best model for building long-term partnerships with customers,” he adds. “Working in the cloud, we deploy updates and enhancements organically and with greater efficiency.”

 

EFI offers a solution for wide format utilizing a suite of products designed to work closely together to provide printers with an integrated, automated, “smart workflow,” says Walsh. The suite includes EFI Digital StoreFront, Pace, PrintFlow Dynamic Scheduling, and Fiery. “Together, these tools provide an end-to-end solution designed to drive out inefficiencies while improving capacity utilization and overall performance,” he adds.

 

Estimator Corp. developed a standalone wide format solution in three ranges, for printers from 60 inches to over ten feet. It is available in house and in the cloud. Estimator’s solution is based on Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), a technology that Mark L. Myers, president, Estimator, identifies as one of the strongest and safest security offerings available.

 

SAi offers its Flexi 11 with Cloud full license software and Flexi subscription license software. Both the subscription Flexi and full license product Flexi 11 are partial cloud-based offerings. The main software installs on a PC and includes a Web window with cloud-based tools.

 

The company promotes its cloud-based products by emphasizing new business and cost savings aspects. “Flexi users can see new orders from sign.com in their area directly in their cloud window. They can accept orders, download the PDF job file, and complete them for payment—all within their Flexi Cloud window. When PSPs understand how this unique capability can easily grow their business, they want it,” says Derhak.

 

Tucanna offers an end-to-end workflow system, which provides functionality from personalized customer portals to online collaboration and approvals to preflighting, file optimization, and color management. Cloud capabilities are currently available. “All of our solutions have been developed with the Internet in mind, allowing the customer to choose whether a cloud-based or in-house solution is the best fit for them,” explains Darrian Young, director, Tucanna.

 

Wide Appeal

In addition to serving the overall print industry, many functions are particularly appealing to wide format print providers.

 

Gallucci argues that with Asanti StoreFront, the PSP’s ability to monitor and interact with incoming orders using a tablet, computer, or mobile phone, allows them to manage resources and production proactively. “Deploying visually rich, customized W2P stores without IT or programming staff expands business,” he adds.

 

Systems that utilize HTML5 compared to Flash—such as online design—have a wider application to the general print market as mobile devices, such as the Apple iPad, are increasingly used to place orders. “The form factor of smaller devices may not be ideal for some projects. I’m not convinced a smartphone is the best choice to design a banner, mural, or billboard,” adheres Ciesemier.

 

“For progressive companies, management’s ability to access all hosted company information at anytime from anywhere is critical to effective marketing and sales,” says Estimator’s Myers.

 

Derhak comments that demand for software subscriptions is growing exponentially, which is made possible by cloud-based licensing. “Sign and print providers are eager to factor their production software into their monthly operating expenses rather than paying large upfront costs. PSPs want to stay ahead of the curve and subscriptions allow them to do that with ongoing feature updates,” he adds.

 

Choice Wins

Depending on the PSP, cloud functionality may be essential, a good option, or the wrong fit altogether. Therefore, it’s choice that matters. While some want cloud connectively throughout, others only require it for a portion of their workflow, with on-premise functions as well.

 

“Having a RIP system on premise eases the concerns of bandwidth and security, and facilitates integration with a variety of printers and devices that the PSP may want to have or acquire,” says Gallucci.

 

Derhak agrees that certain processes in the wide format workflow are still too complex and memory intensive to conduct over the cloud. “The actual wide format RIP process, for example, involves such large file sizes and computing power that it’s still more efficient to do that step on a local PC,” he explains.

 

Ciesemier notes that the need for on-premise functionality depends on the solution. “But, for 99 percent of PSPs, an on-premise solution for a W2P storefront may no longer be worth the extra expense, time, and hassle.” He points out that on-premise solutions may be less reliable than cloud-based systems housed in commercial-grade data centers with multiple equipment, power, and Internet redundancies.

 

On-premise solutions tend to demand a dedicated IT team capable of building out solutions and integrations as they become available. “Many smaller, large format PSPs don’t have these team members in place and a cloud-based solution can be an important part of the information strategy—allowing them to grow their service and operational capabilities without adding team members,” suggests Walsh.

 

Additionally, cloud-based solutions provide value to larger organizations looking to reduce overhead costs. “The ability to add cloud-based applications that can be integrated into internal systems can speed implementations and improve performance,” continues Walsh. EFI often uses a combination of cloud-based software and pre-loaded applications to give PSPs the advantage of a hosted solution with the security and speed of an on-site server.

 

Myers says boxed solutions are still viable. “Many clients still prefer this, as they can inexpensively install their own RDP solution, which is available from Microsoft in five user increments, or several other sources,” he explains. “Usually smaller users with limited budgets may find the hosting fees of about $125 per month out of their comfort zone,” he adds.

 

McWilliam points out that these are still the early days of cloud-based solutions. “While we offer cloud, over half of our customers prefer to deploy on their own servers, in their facilities because of concern regarding Internet access,” he explains.


Tarpey says some customers request self-hosted solutions for greater control over a server, which the company accommodates by setting up a virtual private cloud within a facility. “So, they get all of the benefits and features of the cloud technology, but with a locally hosted environment. This type of customer is typically larger and has access to IT resources, a luxury that most small- to mid-sized printers do not have,” he adds.

 

Young notes that for companies where a lot of design and creative work is done in house, it may make sense to have the workflow on premise to speed the movement of files through the system. If most files are uploaded by the customer, then the cloud makes sense since most of the traffic, preflighting, and collaboration can be done externally and files then only enter the internal network once they are approved and ready to print.

 

Cloud Control

The future of software across many industries is sure to be infiltrated by cloud options, the graphic arts is no exception.

 

“We think the level of software intelligence will continue to grow. At the same time, we expect the user—both on site and remote—to have virtually no idea whether the solution they are using is in the cloud, hosted locally, or both,” says Walsh. “The bottom line is that the software will help them to do their jobs with the highest level of efficiency and accuracy,” he adds.

 

Young says more cloud-based personalized customer portals, increased collaboration tools for interacting directly with the customer, production scheduling and tracking, and mobile applications for customer communication, production control, and delivery, are expected in the near future.

 

While still in its early stages within wide format print, cloud-based functionality is important to the future of production efficiency. PSPs must implement software solutions that serve their needs now, as well as five years into the future, whether they are in the cloud, allow for partial cloud interaction, or remain strictly on premise.

 

Apr2014, Digital Output

 

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