RFID's Data Center Impact Minimal ... For Now

By Allen Bernard

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Because of Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense's insistence suppliers switch to the technology by 2005, RFID is about to enter the mainstream in a big way. What effect this will have on data centers around the country though is less clear.

Ultimately, RFID (radio frequency identification) is simply a new way to get at existing data; most which comes from bar codes today. Replace the bar code with an RFID tag containing the same data, put a couple of readers in some door ways (be they receiving dock doors or the corporate lobby) and you have a data collection and reporting system ready to go, said John Thorn, general manager of Check Point's System's Supply Chain and Brand Solutions group.

Add some middleware and a server or two to communicate the data back to your legacy tracking software using XML and Web services and you could be pretty much done with the install. This would be a very simple implementation, however. No systems overhaul here to handle reams of new data.

"From our perspective we've really worked out hard to develop a system that brings the information under control and parses it out based on how you are used to seeing it," said Thorn. "Our message to the IT folks is look at this carefully. You don't have to re-engineer your systems. There is a phased approach that has minimal impact on your infrastructure as it exists today."

How complicated the data center retrofit needs to be really depends on the depths to which you are looking to transform current tracking processes and how much new information you want to add to the current data stream.

Now, you may think RFID is just for retailers, warehousers, and trucking companies, and, for the moment you wouldn't be too wrong. But eventually RFID, as tags get cheaper and standards fall into place, will be working its way into every company in the country in one form or another, said Thorn.

It's already in use to track and manage documents; wheel chairs in hospitals; prevent theft; and secure buildings from unauthorized access. And, according to Tom Coyle, vice president of Supply Chain Solutions at Matrics, an RFID vendor and middleware provider, he is being presented with new uses every day.

What this means to you is eventually RFID is going to be incorporated into your data center at some level and could have far reaching effects on both technology and business processes, said Erik Michielsen, a senior analyst at Allied Business Intelligence.

"I don't think people have really, fully grasped or quantified the integration piece yet," he said.

Today's solutions are primarily made up of patchwork plug-ins designed to augment existing infrastructure schemes, he said. But as the full potential of the technology is grasped in the coming years then infrastructures will have to be changed to accommodate new business processes and reams of data.

"What's the minimal visibility do you need to meet your business objectives?," said Coyle. "Why is the data useful to you and how should you exploit it? Those are the fundamental questions that need to be answered and people haven't thought through that well at all."

Although much of this data is available today, it usually takes a lot of human intervention to glean and therefore is not necessarily part of the everyday data flows within an organization, like shelf-level inventory numbers. But as those and other numbers become more easily and automatically available via RFID that will change the nature of people's jobs and therefore the nature of the data centers that support them.