1 - Printing System Overview

This chapter provides an overview of how the Common UNIX Printing System works.

The Printing Problem

For years the printing problem has plagued UNIX. Unlike Microsoft® Windows® or Mac OS, UNIX has no standard interface or system in place for supporting printers. Among the solutions currently available, the Berkeley and System V printing systems are the most prevalent.

These printing systems support line printers (text only) or PostScript printers (text and graphics), and with some coaxing they can be made to support a full range of printers and file formats. However, because each varient of the UNIX operating system uses a different printing system than the next developing printer drivers for a wide range of printers and operating systems is extremely difficult. That combined with the limited volume of customers for each UNIX varient has forced most printer vendors to give up supporting UNIX entirely.

CUPS is designed to eliminate the printing problem. One common printing system can be used by all UNIX varients to support the printing needs of users. Printer vendors can use its modular filter interface to develop a single driver program that supports a wide range of file formats with little or no effort. Since CUPS provides both the System V and Berkeley printing commands, users (and applications) can reap the benefits of this new technology with no changes.

The Technology

CUPS is based upon an emerging Internet standard called the Internet Printing Protocol. IPP has been embraced by dozens of printer and printer server manufacturers and is supported by Microsoft Windows 2000.

IPP defines a standard protocol for printing as well as managing print jobs and printer options like media size, resolution, and so forth. Like all IP-based protocols, IPP can be used locally or over the Internet to printers hundreds or thousands of miles away. Unlike other protocols, however, IPP also supports access control, authentication, and encryption, making it a much more capable and secure printing solution than older ones.

IPP is layered on top of the Hyper-Text Transport Protocol ("HTTP") which is the basis of web servers on the Internet. This allows users to view documentation, check status information on a printer or server, and manage their printers, classes, and jobs using their web browser.

CUPS provides a complete IPP/1.1 based printing system that provides Basic, Digest, and local certificate authentication and user, domain, or IP-based access control. TLS encryption will be available in future versions of CUPS.


Each file or set of files that is submitted for printing is called a job. Jobs are identified by a unique number starting at 1 and are assigned to a particular destination, usually a printer. Jobs can also have options associated with them such as media size, number of copies, and priority.


CUPS supports collections of printers known as classes. Jobs sent to a class are forwarded to the first available printer in the class.


Filters allow a user or application to print many types of files without extra effort. Print jobs sent to a CUPS server are filtered before sending them to a printer. Some filters convert job files to different formats that the printer can understand. Others perform page selection and ordering tasks.

CUPS provides filters for printing many types of image files, HP-GL/2 files, PDF files, and text files. CUPS also supplies PostScript and image file Raster Image Processor ("RIP") filters that convert PostScript or image files into bitmaps that can be sent to a raster printer.


Backends perform the most important task of all - they send the filtered print data to the printer.

CUPS provides backends for printing over parallel, serial, and USB ports, and over the network via the IPP, JetDirect (AppSocket), and Line Printer Daemon ("LPD") protocols. Additional backends are available in network service packages such as the SMB backend included with the popular SAMBA software.

Backends are also used to determine the available devices. On startup each backend is asked for a list of devices it supports, and any information that is available. This allows the parallel backend to tell CUPS that an EPSON Stylus Color 600 printer is attached to parallel port 1, for example.

Printer Drivers

Printer drivers in CUPS consist of one of more filters specific to a printer. CUPS includes sample printer drivers for Hewlett-Packard LaserJet and DeskJet printers and EPSON 9-pin, 24-pin, Stylus Color, and Stylus Photo printers. While these drivers do not generate optimal output for the different printer models, they do provide basic printing and demonstrate how you can write your own printer drivers and incorporate them into CUPS.


Printers and classes on the local system are automatically shared with other systems on the network. This allows you to setup one system to print to a printer and use this system as a printer server or spool host for all of the others. Users may then select a local printer by name or a remote printer using "name@server".

CUPS also provides implicit classes, which are collections of printers and/or classes with the same name. This allows you to setup multiple servers pointing to the same physical network printer, for example, so that you aren't relying on a single system for printing. Because this also works with printer classes, you can setup multiple servers and printers and never worry about a single point of failure unless all of the printers and servers go down!