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HP developing 'smart rack' to ease data center work

Company shows off labor-saving data center technology at Palo Alto research lab.

PALO ALTO, Calif.--Business executives and bureaucrats are salivating over the potential labor-saving benefits of radio frequency identification technology, and soon technology workers may find reason to be enthusiastic, too.

Hewlett-Packard is working on a "smart rack" that incorporates radio frequency identification (RFID) systems to make data centers easier to manage. The racks, which could hit the market within the next two years, can instantly take stock of servers and alert staff to problems such as overheating.

A group of researchers here at HP Labs demonstrated a smart rack prototype this week during a media tour of the company?s new RFID Demo Center.

Each shelf in the rack is equipped with an RFID reader designed to read high-frequency signals from servers with special chips storing the machine?s unique ID number. By giving data center managers the ability to take instant inventories, smart racks could eliminate labor-intensive stock checks requiring the physical inspection of each rack, said Salil Pradhan, HP Labs' chief technologist for RFID.

The next-generation server racks should also reduce the risk of lost or misplaced machines whose hard drives store important information. In addition, they could help streamline the servicing and maintenance of gear by keeping better work records for each machine. HP is working on temperature sensitive RFID chips to help quickly spot heat problems and avoid outages.

The system should appeal to companies that manage large data centers housing thousands of servers, Pradhan said.

RFID technology has been around for decades. It's commonly used to track livestock, give workers access to buildings via ID badges, and speed toll payments through programs like E-Z Pass.

Now businesses are finding new uses for the technology because of emerging technical standards and falling chip prices. Retailers, led by Wal-Mart Stores, are starting to use RFID to keep tabs on merchandise. The government wants to use it to store biometric data on passports and organize military supplies.

As the possibilities and spending forecasts multiply, major technology companies, including HP, IBM, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, are getting in on the act. HP launched an RFID services initiative in May. It's aimed at helping companies install and test the technology in factories and warehouses.