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Virtual desktop printing: They're not called 'hard copies' for nothing

Printing isn't a snap in VDI environments, but knowing how virtual desktop printing works and what the most common snags are can help make it easier.

Devices and technologies keep getting easier to use, but something as simple as printing isn't as straightforward as it should be, especially in VDI environments.

The world hasn't gone paperless yet, and many companies still have a need for hard copies of certain documents. If you're an admin running a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), you already know the pain that comes with trying to enable virtual desktop printing. It's not as simple as clicking the print icon; the back end of virtual desktop printing is actually pretty complicated. Redirects, remote workers and prerequisites for your hardware make it difficult for users to print documents.

Still, there are ways you can simplify virtual desktop printing by understanding how it works, learning the most common problems and using third-party products for more advanced features.

How does virtual desktop printing work?

The most popular VDI products have some kind of universal printing feature, which works for virtual desktops that are accessed from a client with a full-featured OS. It passes a job from the virtual desktop to the VDI client, then prints it from the print driver on the client OS. This method is great for employees who work from home or from multiple offices, because any printer installed on the client is available within the virtual desktop. This is nice for IT pros because you don't have to manage tons of print drivers in the VDI master image. Printer redirection can also help facilitate better printing.

Can users print from a virtual desktop accessed on a mobile device?

It's tough to print from a virtual desktop that's accessed on a mobile device because VDI clients for smartphones and tablets don't have printer support, and mobile OSes don't have the best printing abilities. There are ways to print from mobile devices, but none of them integrate with VDI clients. Mobile printing from a virtual desktop is doable, but it takes at least three steps:

  1. Make sure the file you want to print is in a printable format.
  2. Transfer the file to the device. You could use a file-sharing service or site, or you could email the file to yourself.
  3. Get the device to print the file. This often takes third-party software, which may require a special app to be installed on the mobile device.

What are some solutions to RDS printing problems?

In Windows Server 2008 R2, Microsoft's Easy Print tries to simplify remote printing in Remote Desktop Services (RDS) environments. Easy Print works through a series of redirects. First, users set local printing preferences, then the job goes to the server. From there, the file gets redirected to the desktop where it's printed using the local print driver. Lots of steps often mean lots of room for error, but some of the most common problems with RDS printing have easy solutions.

For redirection failures, check group policy settings to make sure Easy Print is enabled. If that doesn't work, check the Resultant Set of Policy to make sure all the settings are correct. If you run into problems with printing to Windows XP or Vista, make sure clients have version 6.1 or higher of the Remote Desktop Client software. Other common printing problems in RDS happen if it is running on a domain controller, if the print driver is missing, if users don't have permission to print or if you haven't met client requirements.

Should I use my VDI provider's printing technology or third-party tools?

Citrix's XenDesktop has printing capabilities, and so does VMware View in versions 3 and up. These printing options aren't perfect, and you've already heard about Easy Print's snags. You can use third-party products such as ThinPrint, triCerat or UniPrint that add onto your VDI vendors' virtual desktop printing tools with features such as secure printing, and performance and bandwidth controls.

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What causes printing problems in your VDI environment?
If you are using Armor5's Mobile Virtualization, you can use their integration with Google Cloud Print to print any documents to the printer next to you.