Overview of Linux Printing Systems

A tour of printing options under Linux.
Interface with applications

Today, the PostScript language stays the primary interface for printing in the UNIX world. All major applications will output at least generic PostScript that will then be processed by the printing system until it gets printed. This is obviously very limited, because applications have no unified way of querying printing features, or even know if a job printed correctly. Very few applications are able to use PPD files to access printer features, although StarOffice and OpenOffice are notable exceptions.

But the situation is improving. For instance, CUPS provides a basic C API that allows applications to be integrated more easily with their printing system. This API includes functions to communicate with a CUPS daemon through IPP, as well as functions to read and parse PPD files, and thus gather detailed information about printers and their capabilities. This still stays quite limited for the application developer, as this only works with CUPS and similar IPP servers.

On the free software side, the Gnome and KDE desktop projects now both include middle-level layers to facilitate printing : KDEPrint and Gnome-Print. These frameworks propose to provide a unified APIs to the applications, by abstracting the underlying printing system.

The future of Linux printing

Things are much better than they were just a few years ago with the emergence of more advanced printing systems. As this is a subject essential to enterprises, we are beginning to see support from big name vendors like HP or IBM that strive to improve on this infrastructure.

Moreover, the Free Standards Group is working on the OpenPrinting project, whose stated goal is to define the next generation of the printing infrastructure for the Linux operating system. Gathering many experts from the industry, this workgroup is defining APIs and standards that will bring Linux up to speed with its competitors.

Stephane Peter is a senior software engineer working for Codehost, Inc in Culver City, CA. When not playing with printing systems, he can be found playing his guitar or biking around in Southern California.



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Also dont forget about xprint

Anonymous's picture

Another alternative printing system based on X

Re: ESP Print Pro

Anonymous's picture

Hi, I bought a copy of ESP Print Pro in 1999, to help support this effort (I don't know C C++), I'm glad that CUPS has flourished.

Re: Overview of Linux Printing Systems

Anonymous's picture

Also seems to have missed a very simple system that does not even require you to have root (admin) privliges.

A small overview http://pdq.sourceforge.net:

Throw away lpr, lp, lpq, lpstat, and lprm, and start planning your vacation! Pdq is guaranteed to be the most straightforward, flexible print subsystem you have ever used, or your money back! (Actually pdq is free software, distributed without warranty.)


* modular driver and interface support
* jobs can be monitored through completion
* job status can be checked after completion
* users can only print files of declared types
* users can define their own printers
* multitasking, with no queues to get clogged
* scripts can be embedded in the rc files
* custom command-line options
* root privileges not required

This is amazing stuff, I have been using it for years in all kinds of companies/schools/home environments.

Why do it the hard way, when it can be so simple?

Eric Schabell

PDQ is not wide-spread enough

megastep's picture

While I agree with your points, and was fully aware of PDQ when I started writing this article, I chose not to mention it and instead focus on the printing systems that are commonly bundled on most Linux distributions.

AFAIK, PDQ used to be offered as a choice in earlier Mandrake distributions, but I think most distros these days just offer CUPS (or sometimes LPRng).

Re: Overview of Linux Printing Systems

Anonymous's picture

Agreed. I have been using pdq for the past year with a variety of printers and it has performed admirably while maintaining simplicity. I cannot understand why this application does not get more recognition.

Re: Overview of Linux Printing Systems

mkomarinski's picture

Why anyone is still using anything other than CUPS is beyond me.

While CUPS itself is listed as relatively new, I've been using it for at least 4 years, so in comparison to lpr, it's new.

The browsing functionality of IPP allows users with laptops to instantly see what printers are available on the network, and adding a new printer to everyone's desktop is as easy as adding it to one location.

Support for Postscript-capable printers is very well done, and there's always foomatic and other drivers for inkjet and other non PS printers.

In addition is the support for SSL encryption and authentication, if desired. This can limit who prints, but could allow you to print from anywhere on the Internet.

The only downside to IPP is that Windows does not support browsing, nor does it support encryption or authentication. You can, however, have Samba export printers listed in CUPS and print that way.

Re: Overview of Linux Printing Systems

Anonymous's picture

> Support for Postscript-capable printers is very well done

It could be much better I think. It is not possible to define per-printer PostScript filters without modifying the PPD. If one uses the web interface to modify a configuration, your filter additions get overwritten and you have to add all your diffs back into the PPD.

That being said, CUPS still has many nice attributes. gnulpr is another project I keep tabs on. (ppdfilt is a nice little utility.)

Re: Overview of Linux Printing Systems... You Forgot One....

Anonymous's picture

Try TurboPrint (http://www.turboprint.de/english.html) I've used it for Client sites that have wierd printer configurations or international printers. It's as easy to use as the HTML GUI for CUPS and has plenty of conf./drivers.

It's a commercial product but there is a free version.



Re: Overview of Linux Printing Systems

Anonymous's picture

Excuse the word but what a lot of wank ? - you can either produce an O/S that has universal printing abilaties or you can not - all this advance talk about it is just a failing of the volanteer code writers who can only do half a job - as an end users I do not care for the excuses (the manufacture has not relesed the code) - it either works or it does not work - complcated solutions are un-acceptable. I can either download a bianary installer as a RPM, DEB or tar.gz and have it work imediately or it is not worth bothering with the O/S.

Raise your standards - Computing in todays world is for idiots - not for Geeks

Re: Overview of Linux Printing Systems

Anonymous's picture

If u want something to work just right out of the box make sure u pay for it. go for some proprietary os that does that and quit whining about oss not meeting YOUR standards. Oss will reach its destination once its ready. Rather than giving opinion based on facts don't whine on things. Remeber that

Re: Overview of Linux Printing Systems

Anonymous's picture

BITE ME, luser.

Then you don't use Windows either, do you?

Anonymous's picture

because when I did Win support on my last job the printing almost never worked right out of the box.

Re: Overview of Linux Printing Systems

Anonymous's picture

The printing abilities exist, it's just the user interfaces that suck.

I must ask the question: Did you even read that?

Stuff doesn't work immediately anywhere. I don't know if you've noticed, but you're supposed to know a little bit about your system even when installing Mac applications. Grow up.

As for standards; They're already almost so high as to above everyone's heads. It takes time to implement them, buddy; we're almost there.

Cups/Linux as Windows replacement

Anonymous's picture

I work in a small educational institution and have been trying to slowly integrate linux into an all Win98 environment. Printing remains one of the biggest obstacles for the extremely NON-technical students (its a religious institution.) I had thought that Cups would solve this problem but I have a major problem with canceling print jobs. Cups works great as long as everyone does everything just right. However, if someone has turned the printer off or just wants to cancel the job because s/he forgot to change something in the document then all hell breaks loose. Either the printer starts spewing junk or refuses to quit printing even though the Cups web interface indicates the jobs have been cleared. The only solution for a none tech person is a reboot - yuck. I have tried kups but the results are the same. This is all that is holding me back from employing it as a print server. Any thoughts anyone?

Re: Cups/Linux as Windows replacement

Anonymous's picture

There may be a parellel process that you can kill instead of rebooting. This happens because the "job" has already left the CUPS queue and been sent to the printer port. Killing the parellel process with the printer off should fix the issue. You do not need to reboot linux machines!

Re: Cups/Linux as Windows replacement

Anonymous's picture

Printing remains one of the biggest obstacles for the extremely NON-technical students (its a religious institution.)

What does that have to do with anything? Are you saying that you can't be religious and a geek at the same time?

Re: Cups/Linux as Windows replacement

OilyFish's picture

Gee, there's always someone with a chip on the old shoulder.