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RFID in tomorrow's data center: More trouble than it's worth?

RFID has its place in the data center of the future. Still, many folks forced to implement RFID say they're dealing with a technology that's still more trouble than it's worth.

For radio frequency identification evangelists, June 11, 2003, stands as the moment when RFID found its place on the IT map -- for better or worse.

It was on that day that Wal-Mart, announced that it would require its top 100 suppliers to put RFID tags on shipping crates and pallets by January 1, 2005. That mandate, followed by another one requiring its next 200 top suppliers to do the same by January 1, 2006, as well as subsequent directives from Target, Best Buy and the U.S. Department of Defense to its suppliers, sent IT pros from coast-to-coast scrambling to fit RFID into their existing ecosystems.

But according to industry experts, the headaches facing data center managers forced to implement RFID technology far outweigh its return on investment (ROI) benefits. That's why most suppliers have yet to even approach RFID from a data center perspective, preferring to leave it as a pilot project, running on middleware, from their distribution centers.

Dennis Gaughan, an analyst with AMR Research Inc., said as many as 90% of the companies implementing RFID wouldn't do so unless they had to. Though the cost of bringing RFID can vary greatly depending on the sophistication of the tags required, rarely does RFID equal ROI.

"The ROI doesn't work for most companies, so there is no motivating factor for them to accelerate adoption," Gaughan said. "It's something [data center managers] need to be aware of … but most are doing it because of mandates and compliance issues."

Taylor Erickson of Deloitte Consulting, an IT consulting firm based out of Denver, said when he speaks to clients planning to implement RFID into their data center, the first thing he tells them is to make sure they don't underestimate its impact on the back end. One of the most critical concerns RFID technology brings to the table is the often excessive amount of raw data the tags deal with, which must be then sorted and understood.

He said the main problem facing data center pros forced to bring RFID into their ecosystem is that the top brass is so enamored with front-end logistical issues that they can forget about the back end altogether.

"A lot of people who are doing RFID aren't looking with enough detail at how it's going to affect the back end," Erickson said. "Depending on how you set it up, you can have massive amounts of data flowing through your system, [so] you have to incorporate data management into your thinking. It can be critical to your ROI equation in order to scale and grow RFID through your organization."

But there are steps toward ensuring a smooth transition. According to Erickson, the best way to avoid RFID headaches in the data center is to try and anticipate them, and then focus your strategy around dealing with them before they get out of control. No where is that more critical than in data management, because the sheer amount of data generated by RFID technology means that one data management misstep can send a data center scrambling for answers in a hurry.

Erickson said it's very important for data center managers to make sure they're an integral part of the process from the get-go; especially considering how often bean-counting execs focus too much on the tags themselves, and not enough on what those tags mean for their IT infrastructure.

It's getting better -- but it's still not good enough.

"Attention is beginning to shift toward the back end as people become more familiar with RFID … [but] it's a balancing act that is topping too heavily on the physical and not enough on the data," Erickson said.

Most of the data center folks view RFID like a trip to the dentist, and put off full implementation for as long as they can. To them, the solution is still more of a problem than anything else, and Gaughan said it could be some time before the kinks are ironed out.

"Beyond the cost of the tags and the infrastructure, it's an immature technology," Gaughan said. "A lot of issues are not resolved yet, causing a lot of anguish for people who've been forced to do it."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Luke Meredith, News Writer

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