Automating data center environmental monitoring with RFID tags

Slapping an RFID tag on every server rack in an enterprise data center isn't a small endeavor, but the payoffs in security and DCIM data are big.

Keeping tabs on hundreds or even thousands of servers is no easy job. RF tagging automates IT inventory tracking tasks in busy data centers.

Asset tracking is an essential component of data center infrastructure management (DCIM), identifying every server, storage array and other component in the facility.

Active radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are discreet sensor-equipped devices that gather and wirelessly transmit pertinent data in real time to a reading device placed in the vicinity. Analytical and reporting software parses the pertinent data to deliver meaningful data center environmental monitoring.

RFID systems work in conjunction with DCIM platforms to provide real-time tracking and IT inventory checks, as well as two- and three-dimensional visualizations of system location data. RFID does have limitations, however, particularly in the setup.

Uses for RFID data

Asset management programs collect location information from tags to maintain a server map complete with reports, alerts and other information. The security benefits are clear, flagging any physical system movement that could indicate unauthorized data center access or tampering.

Data center asset tracking supports compliance with regulations or service-level agreements. For example, IT managers can track that a workload runs on servers within a particular geographic area. RFID allows for automated IT inventory collection, eliminating time-consuming and error-prone investigations of serial numbers and service tag numbers.

Active RFID tags can wirelessly report on environmental and energy conditions around the server, including whether the enclosure is open or shut and the temperature, humidity, fluid and power consumption there.

DCIM platforms then integrate asset and environmental reports to provide an overview of current data center activity, helping IT teams plan for system utilization and resource growth over time.

RFID system options

IT managers can choose from several RF sensors, including RF Code's R135 fluid detector tag and the M100 asset tag, as well as the IT family of tags from Intermec. Tag lifespan, transmission range and associated software all affect the decision.

Be sure to budget for periodic tag replacements when evaluating RFID for DCIM. All tags are battery-powered and must eventually be replaced. Battery life depends on the beacon rate, or how long it performs data transmissions. RF Code's M100 asset tag is rated for a working life of five to seven years with a 10-second beacon rate. RFID tag lifespans will be affected by data center operating temperatures as well, with higher temperatures shortening the working lifespan. However, tag lifespans are generally longer than server lifespans, so one option is to retire the RF tag with the server.

Use several RF receivers at intervals around the environment; there is a practical limit to the number of transmitting tags that a single reader can handle and the transmission range is small. For example, an RF Code M240 reader can support up to 20 RFID tags in the immediate vicinity. RFID radio ranges, rarely exceeding 300 feet, are degraded by data centers' dense metal racks and server chassis, and heavy electromagnetic interference from fans and high-frequency electronics. A typical enterprise-class data center may require readers in every rack.

RFID tag vendors also make software to collect, process and report on the data. RF Code provides Asset Manager and Zone Manager software tools, along with modules to integrate with major asset management tools like IBM Tivoli Maximo, Microsoft BizTalk RFID, APC NetBotz and others. Intermec offers the SmartSystems Foundation tool, and other vendors have proprietary software as well.

For the highest return, RFID tag data should flow into data center facility monitoring tools, such as Nlyte Software's suite or Visual Data Center's VDC 4.6. IT managers must test interoperability between RF tag data and their chosen DCIM platform. Open communication protocols like BACnet or OPC Server ensure that an RFID investment can interoperate with any standard-protocol DCIM platform, but verify with testing.

This was first published in November 2013

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