RFID middleman

The issue with RFID is no longer just a matter of trying to get it to work. Deploying an RFID solution goes beyond the realm of the IT shop and into the operations side of an organization. With a new method of collecting data comes the need for a way to organize it so that it can be used to create efficiencies instead of 3 a.m. wake-up calls. This is where RFID software comes inBut choosing the software can be even more daunting than the RFID technology itself. There are many factors to consider, such as how it interoperates with RFID devices or how it integrates with existing supply chain management software such as ERP and CRM platforms.

Depending on which source you read, RFID (or radio frequency identification) technology has been around for half a century or more – some say it goes back as far as the 1920s. But it’s only in the last decade that it has become more of a household name in the mainstream market thanks to large-scale rollouts by companies like Wal-Mart in the U.S. and Tesco in the U.K. RFID is an automatic identification method that uses devices called RFID tags or transponders to store and remotely retrieve data from radio waves using silicon chips and antennae (in the case of chip-based RFID tags). The tags can be attached or inserted into a product, animal or person. RFID is currently used in anything from passports and transport payments to product tracking, animal identification and inventory systems.

Melding middleware and data
When it comes to RFID middleware, there’s no shortage of vendors to choose from. There are the usual software giants like IBM Corp. and, later this year, Microsoft Corp., both of which have adapted their general-purpose software for RFID, and numerous specialized vendors like OATSystems Inc., which is working with IBM, GlobeRanger Corp. and TIBCO Software Inc. Like any market, as the RFID space continues to mature, consolidation is inevitable. NCR and BEA Systems have already acquired smaller companies, paving the way for further acquisitions to come.

Eric Sanchez, senior product marketing manager of TIBCO, said the first thing businesses need to do is identify what the different end points are and what they are trying to achieve. “RFID is far more than just collecting data,” said Sanchez. “That’s the easy stuff. Adding a bit of intelligence to that data collection is where it starts to make sense – to get the co-relation of the data to more it more useable.” Sanchez said a lot of end users underestimate what it takes to manage the data. “They try and do it themselves and they try and do it the old way,” he said. “(Service-oriented architecture) is definitely the way to go.”

Likewise, Scott Burroughs, solutions executive at IBM, said as businesses realize how they can reliably capture data, the issue becomes what do they do with it. Managing the data, he says, involves the crossing over of the operations and IT departments to determine how they should implement an RFID solution in their business and what kind of business value they can get out of such an investment once it’s in place. To help customers do that, IBM has adapted its WebSphere application server, middleware messaging and DB2 data models and packaged them in a way that they can be used for RFID applications. “We don’t need to reinvent software for the RFID space,” said Burroughs. “It’s not a standalone application. It’s an application getting new data. I need to integrate that data with my business applications in some way or another before I’m going to be able to get some value out of it.”

When businesses deploy an RFID solution, they also acquire more infrastructure, from RFID readers to motion sensors. This equipment also must be managed, configured, updated and monitored. That’s why Brian Tracey, vice-president of engineering, GlobeRanger, said a key component of any middleware platform is hardware management. “Ideally, when you look for software that’s providing this level of management, that software should be capable of handling more than one RFID reader,” he said. “It should be able to handle all sorts of RFID hardware.” Tracey said businesses should consider several key factors when choosing software, including how scalable it is, whether it is capable of centrally managing a large, distributed deployment or whether management software and interfaces are required at each individual installation point.

Similarly, Jasjit Mangat, head of business solutions at OATSystems, said the scalability of an RFID solution is almost important as the middleware itself. “(The technology) should be able to support all of the different sets of solutions, whether it’s a supply chain solution in the retail industry or an asset tracking solution within the manufacturing industry,” he said. “I doubt any business manager would look at it just from, ‘What RFID middleware should I use? More like, ‘What’s the business problems that I’m looking to address and what RFID solution best enables me to do that?’”

The next piece is how to integrate the software with an organization’s existing infrastructure. IBM and Microsoft (which is scheduled to release the next version of BizTalk later this year with an RFID component), have modified their existing platforms to process and store this new kind of data. In terms of systems integration, Chris Brakel, product manager for eBiz, Microsoft Canada Co., said businesses should think of RFID as a service to make it more cost-effective within their organization. “When we look at our RFID package, we link it with BizTalk, because it really plays to the whole idea of the service-oriented architecture,” he says. Outside of the Windows platform, Microsoft’s program manager of RFID infrastructure Anush Kumar, said BizTalk already integrates well with SAP, Oracle and mainframe systems because of the nature of the software, he says. “BizTalk’s core role is to communicate with all sorts of different applications around the entire organization,” he said. Using RFID to extend an organization’s existing ERP or supply chain system is the first step, said IBM’s Scott Burroughs. IBM recommends that its customers put RFID information into its own repository, which is why it announced a product in December called RFID Information Center. The software uses the EPCglobal Information Services standard that allows trading partners to exchange RFID data in a secure environment. EPCglobal is a joint venture between GS1, formerly known as EAN International and GS1 U.S., formerly known as Uniform Code Council Inc., that is mainly focused on creating a worldwide standard for RFID and the use of the Internet to share data over the EPCglobal Network.

No official standards
The advantage of having RFID data in its own repository is that the user can link the data to existing business lines. “The goal is to keep the RFID info outside of your business applications and only tune the enhancements you need and the extensions you need into that application,” said Burroughs.

EPCglobal, which was created in October 2003, currently has more than 1,000 members. While it is the de-facto standards body for the majority of vendors in the RFID market, there currently is no official RFID standards body. Going forward, similar to any other market such as wireless or Web services, standards will continue to be central to driving up adoption of the technology. But the RFID industry has a few standards issues to sort out yet.

TIBCO’s Eric Sanchez, for example, says RFID standards must be a little tighter in terms of how one device interprets the specifications needs of another to be common across the board. EPCglobal in August last year ratified and made publicly available version 1.1 of Reader Protocol, which is an interface standard that specifies the interactions between a device capable of reading or writing tags and application software. The latest version includes commands to read, write and kill tags, access to user memory, as well as identity information.

Don’t call it agnostic
GlobeRanger’s Brian Tracey said the current standards landscape is “extremely disjointed.” He said that almost every vendor has its own proprietary protocol to communicate between the software and hardware layers. Tracey added that protocols can even change from model to model or even from firmware build to firmware build from the same vendor. “It’s an extremely challenging problem,” he said.

But OATSystems’ Jasjit Mangat says middleware carries the connotation that it’s agnostic and works across a range of software and hardware platforms. “It’s basically a piece of software that reacts to RFID components on one side – like tags and readers and devices like label printers – and works with a variety of enterprise software and on the other side. (It) acts as a connecting link between these sensors,” he says. Mangat says because EPCglobal is non-profit driven, it’s easy to adopt its standards.

Sanchez says the cost of the technology alone can be prohibitive. “We need to help promote the adoption rate. Even though we have customers that have had tremendous cost savings, it came through education and maturity.”

RFID is more than just about collecting data. If it’s just information without intelligence built in then it’s useless. For example, if the report from the readers says there are 30 cases at the west dock door, that still doesn’t give the end user any business context such as if those cases were the fulfilment of a purchase order. Getting the most from the data requires more than just good software. The business processes have to also be in place to back them up.

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