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Ask Bloggie: Does This Scan?

Whoever said a scanner can't work on a network is smoking something.

Note: Bloggie will be getting its own spot some time soon, meanwhile I'm posting this answer, but the better parts were written by fellow bloggie Dana Blankenhorn.

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Bloggy was minding his own business when a couple of questions came in from "Scanned in Washington."

"I have a very small business so buying everyone a scanner, and several different types of printers is out of the question. I went on a search for information on connecting all through our in house network and have been frustrated by the lack of information and comparisons on a server that could handle a scanner.

"I have been told that I can't put a scanner on a network "they won't work" yet I purchased a Keyspan USB server that advertised that it can do almost any USB item including scanners.

"Unfortunately the printers are disconnecting during printing, and I'm having to return it as after 3 weeks tech support has not responded to my e-mails. Sadly there is no 1-800 numbers for the company. I can't afford to sit on hold for hours or spend my dollars arguing with them over whether it's a printer problem or a microsoft problem. Since there wasn't either problem prior to adding the USB sever I don't care for the run around either. Unfortunately that leaves me back needing to do something. Are there good sources for finding out information on peripherals (ie. scanners) and networking beyond how to add a print server to a network (ie. USB servers) or other options and comparisons? I've found only a little on print servers through ZDnet/Cnet."

My first reaction was, sounds like my house. We've got a small (five-node) network, and we scan, but not much. We use a multi-function device - a scanner, printer, and copier in one. Just a few hundred dollars. If you have any low-use printer users, plug one into your network there.

My particular box is an old Lexmark X83, discontinued in 2002. Its successor, the x6150, is still just around $100 on-sale. It faxes, too, if you need that.

Whoever said a scanner can't work on a network is smoking something.

Paul?

I've never used a Windows print server that wasn't a PC running a full Windows OS, but I have used them under both VMS and Unix where they work pretty well. Check out Lantronix for well supported examples and information.

On scanning, well one of the basic Unix design rules is to do build applications that do exactly one thing as well as it's possible to do them. Applied to hardware, that means I never buy multi-function gear -so my printers print, and my scanners scan, and never the twain shall meet.

I don't usually buy desktop scanners either - Kodak has a line somewhere that describes my prejudice on this: "jams belong on toast, not in your scanner" and, believe me, there's no substitute for the high end paper handling you get with the more expensive flatbeds.

Of course, since I don't know what you need to scan, or how many documents you have, I can't give you real advice about what to get. What I can do, however, is tell you a true story.

In late 1998 I had an opportunity to do an extended test of Unix scanning and OCR versus Windows scanning and OCR.

MY client was a large recruitment business that had a co-operative arrangement with a much smaller one converting, at my suggestion, to the Adapt recruitment package. Since the small business owner absolutely insisted on Windows desktops and I wanted to test the Mentalix OCR package for Unix, I got to time their secretary entering 1,000 resumes (totalling 2,612 pages) using a high end PC and desktop scanner, both from HP, while also doing the same job myself using Solaris and a Fujitsu 3096G flatbed scanner.

Mentalix provided the software and a script (by Dave Remmers) to run on my Ultra two. Counting the time needed to keep the scanner input hopper full, and the time needed for a messy spell correction script I'd cobbled together, to run, the thing took 173 minutes, all in.

The secretary with the PC took six working days. Typereader 4.0 on the PC got about 97% of its character interpretations right, the Mentalix PixelOCR got about 98.5% right (before spell check of course) - a 20% reduction in the number of words that needed correction. I was not able to measure a difference in document format errors - both systems wrote output to tiff, text, and MS Word 5.0 documents.

So bottom line: if your volume justifies network scanning, it probably justifies a single dedicated scanner -and a good one, with a SCSI2 or higher interface to a Unix (or Linux) machine, is simply going to be vastly more reliable as well as faster and more accurate on big jobs. Mentalix, by the way, maintains a bunch of information about scanner feature support that can function as quick guide to the things.

"My second question is on a source of information about Linux OS and some kind of a "virtual process" that can be added so we could run Windows on top of it and be able to switch between say 98 and xp at will rather than dual booting. Do you know what they might be referring to? If so where I could find information on the limitations of it?"

"Grub.conf is a Samba thing. Windows does tend to have issues booting under Linux when it's not on the first drive in your system. Here's how David Tulloh handles things over at Infaze in Australia:

title=Windows
map (hd0) (hd1)
map (hd1) (hd0)
rootnoverify (hd1,0)
chainloader +1

What do you have, Paul?

Setting aside the question of why you would want to do such a thing, the canonical answer is that VMware enables this and is very slick indeed. Unfortunately it's not cheap - in fact you're better off just keeping a couple of old PCs around than paying for VMware, but if you really need it, it does work.

Xen is pretty much there too - and worth a good look if you're not desperate to have it working tomorrow, want to get in early on a good thing, and want to save a few bucks.

A third alternative, but probably not one that's applicable to you, is to put two integrated PC boards into a Sun workstation. The neat part about this is that you can run both Windows 98 and Windows/XP at the same time in different windows on the Sun's 21" monitor. With CDE and KDE at least, you can even cut and paste between them. I don't recommend this, but if you want to, I have friends at anysystem.com who sell used Sun gear and say they can fix you right up for less than $2,500 exclusive of the Windows licenses.

Dana?

So there you have it. If you've got a serious network, get yourself a serious scanner and run it under Unix. If you don't have a serious network, let it piggy-back on other functions - and rethink the need to run two versions of Windows on the same box.