Despite efforts to shift towards a paperless office over the last decade, the humble printer continues to retain an important role in the offices of today. With larger businesses likely to purchase high-end printer models that incorporate built-in Ethernet ports or even wireless capabilities, SMBs are left with the unique challenge of sharing their USB-based printers in a convenient, yet power-efficient, manner.
To ease your search for the optimal solution, I've listed some of the various options to connect a printer to your SMB network. Do note that links to actual products, if any, are provided only as a reference and do not constitute an endorsement or recommendation.
USB data switch
The simplest option to share USB printers in a very small or branch office would be to make use of a USB data switch to share a printer with multiple computers. This works by connecting all computers to the USB switch, which is, in turn, connected to the printer to be shared. While the simplest models may come with a physical toggle or button, more advanced models, such as this USB Auto 4 Port device, incorporate the intelligence to detect when a PC is printing, and automatically initiate the appropriate connection. Of course, the additional USB cabling can make the use of a USB data switch a comparatively messy affair and is also the least-scalable option by far. Ultimately, I would consider this to be an excellent option for small branch offices looking for a basic solution that is also easy to set up.
OS-supported printer sharing
A fully networked environment may find the use of printer-sharing within Windows to be a more attractive option. Supported on mainstream operating systems such as Windows and Mac OS X, this entails connecting the printer to a workstation designed as the server, and configuring it to be shared on the local-area network (LAN). As you can imagine, some initial setup is needed to get things configured properly, with an obvious downside being that the server workstation has to be switched on to receive print jobs. In addition, it is also not possible to share more advanced capabilities, such as scan and fax functionality, using this method.
Print server appliances
The de facto option in the past when network-enabled printers were too expensive even for the enterprise, print servers are devices that connect to one (or more) printer at one end, and hooks up to the LAN via an Ethernet port on the other. Print server appliances have the greatest scalability, are priced affordably, and offer seamless usability once properly configured. Depending on vendor-specific driver support, scan and fax capabilities may also work as if directly connected.
It is worth noting that some network devices come with built-in support for a wide range of printers. The DiskStation DS1511+ Network Attached Storage (NAS) appliances from Synology, for example, sport sufficient USB ports to support four printers. SMBs that plan their hardware investments appropriately can hence reap the benefit of print server support without having to spend money on dedicated devices.
Ultimately, the final decision on which approach to adopt will vary with the priorities and existing infrastructure of each small- and mid-sized business. Rather than messing with additional appliances or software configurations, for example, SMBs with heavier printing needs may find it worthwhile to simply bite the bullet and acquire network-enabled printers.