RFID's new utility in the datacenter

A new generation of radio tags can give IT a boost in avoiding SLA penalties and in managing assets better

When you think of RFID, you likely think of the radio tags being used to track items in a warehouse or verify prescriptions in a hospital -- two long-time uses of the radio frequency identification tags.

But today, RFID's biggest growth is seen a lot closer to home. Replacing supply chain and inventory management, the No. 1 growth category is now found in the RFID tagging of IT assets, especially those deemed high-value, says Michael Dortch, a senior analyst with Aberdeen Group. "High value" doesn't necessarily mean the equipment is expensive; typically it means that the information stored on the equipment is mission-critical.

[ RFID has a wide set of uses. Learn about four exotic uses that may surprise you. ]

IT asset tagging has a lot in common with some of the exotic uses of RFID you may have heard about, such as doctors monitoring data from race walkers, vets monitoring race horses, and engineers measuring wear and tear as an Indy cars race around the track.

In all these scenarios, the goal is for RFID to deliver accurate, timely, consistent data so users can make more informed decisions. RFID should stand for "real-time, fully integrated data," Dortch says. And that information-centric approach to RFID explains the growing use of RFID in IT asset management.

For example, if you lose a pallet of inventory, that's one thing, but if somebody walks out of your datacenter with customer information, that's entirely a different matter. The loss of that kind of information puts your company at a "high reputational risk," Dortch says. So RFID tags are increasingly used as part of information security practices.

RFID helps IT avoid SLA penalties
More broadly, the use of RFID is helping service companies meet their service-level agreements (SLAs) when managing IT assets for their customers.

IBM, for example, has been working the past few years on an application it calls Services Asset that keeps track of IT assets as well as office furniture, desktops, and printers, and then integrates that RFID data with other business applications such as full-blown asset management tools from CA, IBM Tivoli, and Microsoft that track additional information such as what software is on the hard drive, what chip sets are on the server, and which version of the operating system is being used.

"Customers move assets around," says Nancy Kingston, a sensors and actuators solutions executive at IBM, "but they also want to know where they are located for accountability. People with SLAs get penalties because they don't know where they [the assets] have gone."

Data about assets is also needed for government regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley, which mandates that IT account for its assets on a regular basis, with executives signing off on the accuracy, for regulatory issues as well as for financial audits in general.

Changes in technology let RFID work in IT
RFID's uses within IT weren't possible about a year ago. But three developments have made RFID better fit the IT environment. One, the tags can be much smaller than before -- some can even fit inside a pill to be swallowed for medical uses. Two, tags' radios can now transmit in metallic environments such as datacenters. Previously, all that metal reflected the radio signals so much that the signals got distorted, Kingston notes. Three, newer tags can reflect signals back as far as 100 feet away from the reader, making the readers easier to deploy and the tag counts more accurate. Companies such as Alien Technology and Omni ID have pioneered these advances.

For IT, these advances mean that tags can be placed inside the server rack on individual blades and that the tag data can be read without pulling out the racks. Even individual drives can be tagged and read as a rack enters the server room still in its box, notes Victor Vega, director of marketing at Alien.

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