RFID for asset tracking

It's 10 o'clock. Do you know where your servers are?

Earlier this month, I went to Palo Alto, Calif., to meet with scientists Cyril Brignone, Craig Sayers, and Salil Pradhan. They demonstrated for me a practical IT asset-tracking solution for datacenters, designed around RFID technology and software visualization.

Brignone and Sayers are research scientists at the sentient environments department at HP Labs. Together with Pradhan, CTO of the labs' RFID program, they put an RFID tag on every rack-mounted server and used an RFID reader mounted inside the door of what they call a “smart rack” to track where the servers are at all times. The system works by collecting location information for the servers in a database and using a Web server to publish visualizations of that data.

Theft is not the issue here. Rather, the problem they are trying to solve is the case of “Now where did I put that thing?” As you probably know, perhaps from firsthand experience, IT folks are constantly taking servers out for service. Cables get unplugged, or someone switches a box from one rack to another.

Sayers told of a customer with an offshore development team whose system went down. It took half a day of searching the datacenter in the United States to track down the unresponsive server in order to find out that the cable had come unplugged.

To give another example, suppose a particular machine has customer Social Security numbers on it. You’ll want to know where that box is at all times.

Another RFID solution from the labs integrates video with RFID to track packages in a warehouse. Using this system, warehouse managers can identify items and their locations.

Still another solution adds GPS to the mix. Say you remember there used to be a palette in a certain spot and now it’s gone. Standing anywhere in the warehouse, you can ask a specialized handheld with an integrated GPS receiver what was there, and it will show it to you in a video. Sort of like a time machine, I would say. Using GPS and video as cross-references, the accuracy rate of knowing which box is where is extremely high.

Of course, there are potential privacy issues associated with this technology. As with any scientific endeavor, whether it’s the splitting of the atom or a 25-cent tracking device, it’s up to us to decide whether to use it for good or ill. Unfortunately, our track record on that score is not very encouraging.

In the future, however, tracking assets will pale in comparison to the longer-range benefits of RFID for SCM, manufacturing, and retailing. Unfortunately, the tools for forecasting and analysis are still a ways off, according to an RFID study conducted by Forrester Research, provocatively entitled “BI Vendors Are Sleeping Through RFID’s Arrival,” by Keith Gile and Philip Russom.

The short of it is that Forrester’s survey of leading BI vendors -- which include Business Objects, Cognos, and SAS, plus application vendors such as SAP and Teradata -- showed that none had application-specific solutions for interpreting the mountains of RFID data that will soon swamp datacenters around the world, and that nothing was on the horizon until 2007.

The study’s short-term solution: “Product-driven enterprises should capture RFID data and model it for analysis themselves.” That sounds an awful lot like DIY.

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