I have decided to focus on a new, unique and controversial data source for information management architectures - radio frequency identification (RFID). A year ago, I had barely heard of RFID. In the past year, I have had the opportunity to work on projects in multiple industries that source RFID data to initiate an industry-wide RFID implementation and have networked with several exciting RFID-oriented startups and RF engineers. The Dallas area, where I live, is a hotbed of RFID activity.
From what I've learned, I am impressed with the possibilities. With this technology, the next century has the potential to codify and make finite the seemingly infinite, potentially to the point of codification of life itself. It is that big. In this first part, I will give an overview of RFID. It is important to understand the uses and applications in order to architect properly.
Conceptually, RFID is really quite simple to understand. Think bar codes with an emerging standard for the code, the ability to uniquely identify each item and much improved reader capabilities. Then, stop thinking bar code because bar code replacement is not what RFID is about. RFID tags have associated cost that could be significant when added up. Tags actually run the gamut from "passive" to "active." Cost is hard to ascertain because the tags are purchased in bulk and pricing them is an emerging science, but to give you an idea, figure 10 cents for passive and multiple dollars for active. Five cents is considered the tipping point to explosive growth by many in the industry.
Passive tags are incredibly small (the size of a grain of rice) and do not have their own power. They each have an antenna that transmits based on power projected by the reader. Range is usually limited to a few feet. Active tags are larger and have their own batteries. Data can actually be stored from a reader to the active tag. Active ranges are excellent - up to an unbelievable several hundred feet. Active tags can be read through barriers. Active is necessary when considering live subjects (animals/humans) because we are made up of so much water. Another class of chips is called semipassive (sometimes semi-active) and is similar to active but with less range and storage capability. Passive and semipassive chips are mass-produced in a process similar to a printing press.
Electronic product code (EPC) is an emerging standard for assignment of codes for RFID reading, consisting of 96 bits to uniquely define the item. It is broken out like a UPC code with a category and subcategory, but there is also room for a serial number to uniquely identify each item (whether it is a cow, laptop, credit card, etc.) The existing specification for this code will account for almost every physical asset on the planet worth tagging for the foreseeable future. It's important to understand that any reader can understand any tag unless cryptography has been applied to the tag. Cooperation will take place intra-industry, although cost bearing and information sharing (between manufacturer and seller, for example) are huge issues the industry is dealing with today.
Billions of tags have been ordered, with many of these in operation now. Industry projections of orders are mind-boggling. Whenever these tags are read, data is produced. Clearly, much of it is simply operational - read the chip, take note of it and deal with exceptions. However, a growing percentage of the data is also becoming useful to analytics - determining patterns of movement, resulting in optimized actions.
I am astounded at the current uses of RFID. The breadth of use runs the gamut from helping to find the car keys to sophisticated systems for detailing product movement across countries from origin to ultimate consumer use. Any of these applications could be described in a full column, but I will do my best to convey some of the ideas that have been implemented: inventory management, toll tags, ski resorts (to aid skiers in opening gates), branding cows, bird flu tracking, ID cards, the American Express Blue card, pharmaceutical pedigree, Toyota Prius keyless entry, electronic cash, VIP customers, product movement, U.S. passports (scheduled for October, but this has been delayed before), airline parts, Sharper Image (gadgets for tracking household items), laptop loss, credit cards, frequent shopper cards, clothes, homeland security fences and school kids. By no means is this list exhaustive.
Perhaps the most intriguing applications for enterprise-class architects are the pharmaceutical pedigree, the credit and frequent shopper cards and inventory tracking (for theft, shrinkage and product reordering). Now that you have the concept, I'm sure you can think about other future uses. One is elimination of cash registers. If all products in the store are tagged and your credit card (or frequent shopper card with a link to a credit card) is tagged, you can walk right through a reader to the parking lot.
In the next issue, I will explore the emerging need to architect for RFID data
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