What’s new with printing for Windows Virtual Desktop

Bas van Kaam looks at how it works, and how third-party vendors are addressing WVD, including Tricerat and ThinPrint.

Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) comes with a brand-new Windows 10 Multi-User operating system, extended support for Windows 7, and can host all Windows Server operating systems as of 2012 R2 and upwards. But, what about printing?

WVD is getting a lot of attention lately, not just from me personally, but from IT folks all over the globe. Will it take over the world once released? Probably not, but WVD certainly has potential. When the rumors started and the initial WVD announcements followed, it made me think about the time when Amazon announced their Workspaces DaaS offering, about five years ago.

Amazon’s offering was far from a perfect solution. I don’t want to get into it all now, but the fact that the biggest cloud provider globally decided to get into the DaaS space sure made some heads turn. Of course, the world looked a little different back then; Office 365 was still relatively new, and nobody imagined the success Microsoft would have with it.

The same is happening today with Microsoft marketing the heck out of WVD. Will it be completely finished when they launch? My guess is no. Though, to be honest, it doesn’t really matter. Almost every company I currently visit is interested in learning more, never mind if they’re actually going to use it in production. The same is true for most of the IT communities I’m active in, and with the colleges I work with on a daily basis.

A job well done for Microsoft.

Microsoft currently holds all the cards to make this a success, including the tight integration with Office 365 (and Azure AD), the Windows licensing monopoly, massive marketing campaigns, the acquisition of FSLogix, and so on. There’s no one else able to offer anything similar, not even close, at least not at this scale.

What about printing?

As with their “profile” solution before, this is another field of expertise with room for improvement. With Windows Server 2008, Microsoft introduced Easy Print, their Universal Print solution for RDS-type deployments.

Easy Print allows for the mapping of client printers into an RDS session. As mentioned, it uses a Universal Print Driver, so you don’t need to have separate/native drivers installed for the printers being mapped into your session(s).

However, Easy Print is specific to client printer redirection and doesn't work for network printers. Another drawback is that the Easy Print Universal Print driver cannot be set as default. This means that Microsoft-native drivers automatically get installed when the server detects a new print device with no compatible drivers on board.

More advanced features, supported by your printing hardware and (native) software, also won’t be available.

Another challenge with cloud-based deployments, or remote locations in general for that matter, is traffic flow (printing pathways) and how things like compression and encryption are taken care of. For example, RDS Easy Print will send uncompressed raw print data over the line—not the most efficient approach.

When an HTML5 client is used (instead of an RDP session), WVD will also offer a PDF-based printing option. The user will select a PDF printer from within the application running on WVD. Once the user clicks Print, a PDF document will be created, WVD downloads the PDF to the local machine, and then a local print dialog opens from where the user (again) needs to select a device to print to. OK-ish, but that’s it.

So, what are some alternative printing methods?  

Enter third-party solutions

Of course, Microsoft knows that their printing solutions aren’t ideal, especially for larger organizations. Clever as they are, conversations with various printing-orientated vendors started early. While this article isn’t meant as an installation and/or configuration manual, I do want to share a couple of options for you to at least consider. I was able to talk to two well-known printing giants that shared with me some of the work they are doing with Microsoft, or plan to do.

Tricerat
Throughout the last couple of months, there have been talks between Tricerat and Microsoft. Both parties are exploring how they can benefit from each other, and things are starting to look promising.

WVD isn’t that different from what we are used to: it’s cloud, and thus remote; can be RDS based; and so on. Last year, Tricerat introduced the Print Server Proxy, which combined with their Simplify Printing suite and ScrewDrivers, offers a complete solution tackling all of these concerns, including data compression and encryption. Tricerat’s solution offers a rich set of printing features without the need to install any third-party print drivers on your WVD hosts.

Setup for the Print Server Proxy is as simple as it is effective (no firewall reconfigurations or setting up VPNs). It will “live” within your WVD tenant (vNet). Your on-premises Print Server, which will have a small piece of Tricerat software installed, will be “polling” the Print Server Proxy on an ongoing basis. It will know instantly when there is traffic to process.

When a user hits Print from one of your WVD hosts, the locally installed ScrewDriver software makes sure that your print job is routed to and through the Print Server Proxy, where compression as well as encryption will take place. From here, print traffic will be sent over to your on-premises Print Server, configured network, or locally attached printing device.

You will be able to manage all of your print devices and print servers from a single management console; this includes not only WVD, but on-premises printers and print servers, as well, or those located in other remote / cloud locations. It works for desktops, laptops, and all sorts of mobile devices, and seamlessly integrates with Active Directory for authentication and printer entitlement purposes.

All of this will take you approximately 15 to 20 minutes to set up.

A potential (Azure) as a Service offering is in the works as well, so stay tuned. There’s more to share, of course, but that is the gist of it.

ThinPrint
ThinPrint was one of the launch partners when Windows Virtual Desktop got announced back in 2018. And they haven’t been sitting still, I can tell you. ThinPrint offers ezeep for Windows Virtual Desktop, which is based on their existing cloud-native platform launched back in 2016. It’s meant to connect hosted WVD environments to local print environments while enhancing the overall user experience in general.

Currently, ezeep is being turned into an Azure-integrated printing service (PaaS) which will not only handle printer assignments and printer queue creations for local and network printers, it will also take care of the print rendering process itself. Organizations will deploy the ezeep print app onto their WVD hosts and configure its printers on one or several ezeep Hubs (agents for Windows and OSX will be available as well).

Next, users will be assigned printers through an admin portal and ezeep for WVD automates the rest. Due to its integration in Azure, users are authenticated with their Azure AD credentials automatically, and they see the printer objects they can use in their WVD session right away.

For organizations that require, or prefer, more detailed control over the print data flow, ThinPrint is working on a solution that, based on preconfigured deployments of HA-balanced ThinPrint servers in the Azure cloud (IaaS), connects the physical print devices with the hosted environment. The on-premise endpoints could be existing print servers with the ThinPrint client software installed or a (physical) ThinPrint Hub. Data compression, as well as encryption, is taken care of as well. Also, neither solution requires VPNs, static IPs, or inbound ports in firewalls to be opened, and will be available through the Azure Marketplace in the (near) future.

Conclusion

There you have it, three potential WVD printing solutions, one a bit more advanced than the others. Of course, Easy Print and the print-to-PDF solution could work fine for smaller companies, with a few dozen office workers, perhaps. At scale, neither of those options is probably the way to go. Both Tricerat and ThinPrint offer proven enterprise-ready software, as they have been doing for some time now.

I’ve heard more than one success story over the years, regarding both vendors, that is. I like how they are cloud-ifying their existing solutions, making it even easier to set up, work with, and manage. I won’t say that this wouldn’t have happened without WVD, but it sure helped with getting things in motion, and not just printing. More and more companies, including large CSPs like Citrix joined the WVD movement, and many more will follow, I’m sure. Once WVD hits GA, it will be interesting to see how things unfold.

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