Cisco jumps into wireless sensor market

Alliance with RFID player WhereNet indicates a move into new wireless territory for giant networking company

At Interop, the high tech industry's major networking conference, a little-noticed partnership announcement between WhereNet, designers of active RFID location systems, and Cisco may be far more significant than anyone realizes.

The WhereNet tags work in dual mode, sending either the industry standard ISO 24730 transmission signal which is read by WhereNet's Real-Time Locating System (RTLS) architecture or IEEE 802.11b signal which can be read by Cisco Wi-Fi access points.

Active RFID chips, as opposed to passive chips, send a signal out to readers rather than having to be woken up by a reader, at which point the information is uploaded.

In essence, an upgrade to Cisco software, Release 4.1 for the Cisco Unified Wireless Network, available this week gives WLANs the ability to format and read data generated by sensors.  

The immediate benefit will be seen in that a special antenna to hear the signal from tag is no longer needed. Instead, the WhereNet tag can use the existing Wi-Fi access points that are already in place. This in turn lowers the cost of an implementation and gives users a broader area of location visibility, according to Dan Doles, vice president and general manager, WhereNet Business Unit, Zebra Technologies.

Before the integration of the two technologies, a dedicated, proprietary network was needed to read sensor data, said Ben Gibson, director of mobility solutions at Cisco. Now the same infrastructure, a single Wi-Fi network platform, can be used to host and manage sensor data.

Using an open API, Cisco can take the telemetry data and export it into a host of different business applications for analysis.

"Business mobility isn't just about laptops and VOIP, it is also about process optimization and asset tracking," said Gibson.

And this is where the long-term and far reaching benefits of the announcement this week comes from, according to Josh Greenbaum, principal at Enterprise Applications Consulting.

Sensors represent a huge, unstructured, non-relational data source understood in manufacturing but relatively unknown outside of it.

"Anything that is enabling the collection of sensor data is enabling the next revolution in information management," Greenbaum said. 

However, the trick, said Greenbaum, is going to be where Cisco goes with this. Most sensor-based applications are vertical and industry specific. The question is whether or not Cisco can turn this horizontal knowledge into specific vertical markets.

Examples include putting sensors on hospital equipment, such as a dialysis machine to know whether it is clean or dirty, outdoors where a sensor might read temperature, or on pharmaceutical products where the humidity and temperature may play a key role in the products viability.

Nevertheless, the agreement with WhereNet, whose active RFID-based solutions are focused on asset tracking and location, is only the opening round of what one industry expert said will become the decade of the sensor. If that is true, Cisco's relatively early entry in the sensor industry was a brilliant strategic move.

For its part, WhereNet is partnering with a company that can raise its profile with many major companies where tracking of assets and the deployment of RFID is quickly becoming a key component of their supply chain.

WhereNet tags will be priced at $55 and available in August.

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