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RFID Rocks Back-End Storage

IT managers are bracing themselves for a data explosion caused by Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) devices as retailers, manufacturers, and defense contractors rush to deploy the technology.

Kevin Brown, director of information systems at dairyfood maker Daisy Brand, and a keynote speaker at this week's RFID World event in Dallas, told Byte and Switch that he is getting ready to scale the data mountain. "The demand for storage will grow as more retailers bring on more stores," he says. "At the moment, it is not a huge amount [of data] but it will definitely grow."

Touted by vendors as hardier, easier to implement, and more flexible than barcode scanning, RFID is now taking hold in the retail and manufacturing sector. Wal-Mart for example, has already strong-armed its top suppliers into deploying the technology, and, this week, Kimberly Clark and Samsung added flesh to the bones of their own RFID plans. (See Kimberly-Clark Goes for RFID.)

Daisy Brand was one of Wal-Mart's first RFID-enabled suppliers, and Brown is already considering the data implications of other firms following Wal-Mart's lead. Retail giants Albertson's and Target, for example, are also pushing their suppliers towards RFID. "It can be quite voluminous, depending on the number of products, the number of stores, and the number of distribution centers you are dealing with," says Brown.

RFID works by using tags, on either a specific product or package, which emit radio signals. "Reader" devices then pick up these signals, enabling the products to be tracked. Unlike barcode technology, RFID does not require direct contact, or what is known as "line-of-sight" scanning.

So just how much data does an RFID app generate? A single distribution center handling just five products, Brown says, could generate up to 30 Mbytes a month. Consider, then, the data generated from 100 products and 20 distribution centers, and you get some insight into Brown's growing challenge.

Against this backdrop, management consulting firm DiamondCluster this week urged firms to take a cautious approach to the technology, warning that connectivity and infrastructure costs account for more than 50 percent of an RFID deployment. (See DiamondCluster Urges Reality Check.) This echoed similar concerns from analyst firm IDC, which has warned that the success of RFID rests on the ability of enterprise networks to cope with the influx of data. (See IDC: RFID Success Depends on Networks.)

Brown told Byte and Switch that he uses Globeranger's iMotion software to filter the data generated by its RFID devices, and is planning to expand his data warehouse to cope with the expected data boom. This, he says, will be attached to the firm's Hewlett-Packard SAN, and will be mined for promotions and order management data. "Not only do we want to keep the data, but we want to be able to associate it with other parts of the business for a better ROI," he adds.

But it is not just firms in the retail and manufacturing sector that are looking at RFID. Texas A&M and the State of Alaska also highlighted their own RFID work this week, with the latter using the technology to track salmon shipments between Seattle and Guatemala. (See Alaska Opts for Universal Guardian and Axcess Teams With Texas A&M.)

A slew of vendors, including Sun, SAP, and BEA, also used RFID World as a launch pad for new wares. (See Sun, SAP Collaborate on RFID and BEA Showcases RFID Tech.)

But, it may take some time before RFID works its way into the low end of the market. Sam Liu, director of RFID product management at Sun, told Byte and Switch that a sizeable chunk of the vendor's 100-plus RFID customers are large enterprises, although he confirmed that Sun is working on a patient tagging project at an Oklahoma hospital.

But, as with all emerging technologies, there are standards still to be thrashed out around RFID. "There are issues for certain manufacturers," says Brown. "Especially if you're dealing with international distribution."

Brown, however, says that he is hopeful that the EPC Global standards body will flesh these standards out: "We will support what we can and move from there."

— James Rogers, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch



Organizations mentioned in this article:

  • BEA Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BEAS)
  • HP Inc. (NYSE: HPQ)
  • IDC
  • SAP AG (NYSE/Frankfurt: SAP)
  • Sun Microsystems Inc.
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