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Commentary: In the middle with RFID

Companies considering middleware for radio frequency identification systems should look for flexible architectures that can start small and grow with their needs.

Commentary: In the middle with RFID
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET
June 1, 2004, 12:30PM PT

By Sharyn Leaver, research director

Middleware for radio frequency identification systems will manage the flow of data between tag readers and enterprise applications.

Many RFID early adopters--primarily driven by mandates--have turned to application vendors and specialists like Manhattan Associates and OATSystems, respectively, which were first to market with quick-hit middleware solutions. But top platform veterans, including IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and Sun, are planning to redefine this market with offerings that support broader RFID deployments.

Companies considering these vendors today should look for flexible architectures that can start small and grow with their needs.

Different paths, same goal
RFID middleware provides key features, such as reader coordination, data filtering and routing, that help companies intelligently integrate the right RFID data into the applicable business processes--and the applications that support those processes. Driven by RFID mandates, application and pure-play vendors like Manhattan Associates and OATSystems were quick to bring these middleware offerings to market. SAP, an incumbent within many consumer products companies facing mandates, also launched an RFID middleware product based on its NetWeaver platform earlier this year.

More recently, top platform veterans have staked their claim on the market, touting unparalleled experience with high-volume integration and data management scenarios. Forrester spoke with executives at IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and Sun Microsystems to find out what they're up to. At a macro level, each vendor is working to amass RFID experience and bring a strategic RFID middleware architecture--one that takes advantage of its standard middleware products--to market this year. But vendors' approaches vary and highlight their key assets:

• IBM merges services and integration technology. IBM's 55,000 consultant-strong Global Services group is actively engaged in early RFID pilots and proof-of-concepts with retail, consumer products and industrial customers.

related story

The company plans to
launch a software package
aimed at the RFID market.

These pilots are driving product plans for a packaged RFID architecture, which will take advantage of key WebSphere components like WebSphere Application Server and WebSphere MQ for reliable messaging, as well as DB2. The complete solution isn't scheduled for availability until the second half of 2004, but most of IBM's current pilot tests are already using early versions of the architecture.

• Microsoft taps partners and middleware expertise. Last month, Microsoft formed an RFID council to learn from early pilot tests and get input from partners on Microsoft's RFID plans. The company plans to develop RFID-specific middleware features like data filtering and reader integration and management, which will complement its core middleware products, BizTalk and SQL Server.

But the go-to-market packaging and timing of this functionality has not been finalized. Microsoft also partners with vendors like GlobeRanger and Manhattan Associates, both of which are charter council members and offer pieces of RFID-specific middleware functionality. Microsoft Business Solutions, which provides business applications for small to midsize businesses, is also testing RFID middleware for smaller-scale implementations.

• Oracle takes advantage of integration and database technology. Oracle recently announced its sensor-based services product strategy, which will build on the company's application server and database technology to provide RFID middleware functionality. Specifically, Oracle will add "edge services," including reader device management and filtering capabilities to the 10.1.2 release of Oracle AS, due out this summer. Not surprisingly, Oracle's database and data hub technology will be at the heart of the vendor's RFID middleware architecture, providing a single source for all RFID data. Although the complete set of functionality won't be out until the summer, Oracle is currently offering a "compliance assistance package," which includes beta versions of the edge services.

• Sun builds test centers and draws on Java leadership. On May 5, Sun opened the doors of its 17,000-square-foot RFID testing facility in Texas to help customers tag and test their radio tag deployments. The facility features RFID equipment from manufacturers like Alien Technology and Matrics, a 600-foot-per-minute conveyor system and Sun's RFID middleware software. The middleware will be based on electronic product code standards and Java technology. It is currently available for early access, and the final product is expected out later this summer.

Meeting near-term and long-term requirements
Will these vendors dominate the RFID middleware market? None of them has delivered generally available, packaged products and services yet, so it's too early to tell. But given their experience with scalable infrastructure software, Forrester does expect these vendors to provide strong platforms that support broader RFID deployments. The bigger question is this: Can these vendors get scaled-down solutions--tuned for immediate compliance needs rather than long-term deployments--to market in time to compete with application vendors like SAP and top specialists like OATSystems?

Companies considering IBM, Microsoft, Oracle or Sun should look for:

• Flexible, multitiered architecture. Strong RFID middleware will have a more federated architecture than typical integration technology. Why? More filtering logic must reside close to the readers--if not in the readers themselves--to handle the high volume of RFID data flowing in from multiple readers. But one or more hubs will also be required for central control of routing logic and key data. Customers should adopt solutions with a flexible, multitiered architecture that can handle both a one-warehouse pilot and a 10-warehouse deployment that touches several business applications.

• Short-term reader coordination functionality. Another key piece of functionality that's unique to RFID middleware is reader integration and coordination. Much of this functionality will eventually become a commodity, once standards are in place. But until then, early adopters considering a platform veteran for their RFID middleware solution should make sure this functionality is included--either through built-in functionality or through tight partnerships.

• A clear migration path. Companies that are looking to get started with RFID middleware today will face first versions, or software before it becomes generally available, from these vendors. This means that buyers should push vendors to outline future product plans as well as a very clear migration path--with strong support commitments--that will help buyers move to new releases quickly.

© 2004, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.