What is the End Game for RFID Architecture?

This month, I continue my conversation with Michael S. Shiff, general manager of RFID Recruiters, discussing some of the key dynamics driving the RFID wave as it relates to business intelligence (BI).

Shiff: Over time, as RFID tags become recognized for what they are - miniature programmable computer nodes on a network - the distinctions between the tag-driven and network-driven architectures will recede. At this point, the RFID architecture will resemble other IT architectures that have matured to offer granular increments of processor and memory capacity with options. Previously, network interfaces on computers were considered the front end. On RFID tags, they will be considered the back end, and sensors will become the front end. Sensors will be used to monitor and report changes in the environment such as temperature, humidity, shock and vibration, along with various aspects of security such as physical or other tampering. Sensors on RFID tags hold promise for detecting and reporting chemical and nuclear particles. The applications for RFID tags with and without sensors will be nearly endless.

In the early days, tag providers will offer very specialized tags. As the market matures, the winning providers will offer a family of tags that will support a high degree of functional portability among the tags. The tags, the readers (reader-writers), the ability to manage the RFID edge environment and the ability to integrate the edge environment with IT systems everywhere will give rise to platforms for pervasive computing.

McKnight: In this view, will RFID lead to more than identifying and tracking items?

Shiff: As a frame of reference, some analysts (focused on conventional computers, mostly PCs) have said that the 1 billionth computer was shipped in 2002, and that in 2007, the 2 billionth computer will ship. While forecasts are certainly subject to error, a fairly recent RFID projection called for 20 billion RFID tags to be used in 2008. Most of these tags are projected to be electronic product code (EPC) standard compliant tags for supply chain management applications. However, it is important to remember that increasingly, RFID tags will not just be devices to identify and track items, but rather they are on the path to become programmable and networkable computers. Virtually every item with a unique serial number (or name) will have the potential to become an intelligent wireless node on a private intranet, a private extranet or the public Internet.

McKnight: Okay, that's all theoretically exciting, but what is the state of the art today?

Shiff: Today, the most visible face of RFID is the passive tag that is used to identify and track pallets and cases as they move through supply chains. These tags are detected as they move through the presence of readers. The readers may be either fixed or handheld. Once the reader detects a tag, it generally communicates the tag's identity upstream first via a local area network and eventually to an extranet or via the Internet to servers that record the tag's ID, the reader's ID and location, and the time of the event. Systems and applications are being developed and implemented that then allow the data from the tag and its events to be correlated to other information previously known about the tag - which might include considerable data about the product on which the tag resides - if that data was captured as part of the manufacturer's assembly and testing processes. As a result, the amount of data being generated by the events experienced by each tag is only a small fraction of the data involved.

System issues (beyond what data should be initialized on the tag and/or subsequently stored or processed on the tag) begin to surface immediately, starting with the reader's functionality. One reader may have one antenna or multiple antennas. How does it discriminate among redundant reads from the many tags within its range? What is accurate data or inaccurate data, and what is valuable information? Most of these issues need to be sorted out with "edge" software rather than in data warehouses. Beyond edgeware, how are readers and systems managed? How do readers get integrated within warehouse management systems and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems? Today, one important segment of the RFID industry consists of middleware providers focused on providing business logic, application integration and system management functions. While edgeware and middleware handle many valuable functions, these solutions by no means preclude the need for data warehousing and business intelligence systems.

If the RFID projection is correct, it's not too difficult to foresee the impact of RFID tags, even with a great deal of edge filtering, cleaning and middleware intelligence. As 20 billion RFID tags work their way through supply chains and other business environments in 2008, with each tag reporting data on a real-time or near-real time basis, there will be a lot more information for data warehouse and business intelligence applications to manage.

McKnight: That gives us some ideas about how RFID might unfold. Can you provide a sense for how frequently the scanners are reading the tags today?

Shiff: Some vendors would say the current read rate for readers can be on the order of 500 reads per second with a theoretical maximum on the order of 1,000 reads per second. The number of readers that a tag might encounter will vary with the application, but as RFID becomes broadly adopted, it is possible to envision business environments that will be densely populated with fixed and mobile readers. Exterior entrances and exits and interior doorways are just some of the likely locations for fixed readers; handheld readers can be envisioned in many additional locations. 

Michael S. Shiff, General Manager of RFID Recruiters (www.rfidrecruiters.com), has 25 years of information systems experience. RFID Recruiters has attracted experienced RFID candidates from more than 20 countries around the world for its clients who are among the leading providers of RFID technologies. Shiff's passions are developing business strategies and building talented teams that are expert at successfully bringing complex information technologies to market. He may be reached at genmgr@rfidrecruiters.com.

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