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Commentary: Filling a void for RFID

Companies experimenting with radio frequency identification tags and readers are learning that they need new software to get the most out of their efforts.

Commentary: Filling a void for RFID
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET News.com
February 19, 2004, 10:48AM PT

By Joshua Walker, Research Director

Companies experimenting with RFID tags and readers are learning that they need new software to benefit from their efforts.

Start-ups and large software makers are just starting to deliver products to help--below is a look at how companies should test vendors.

The bulk of the return on investment for RFID tagging will come from intelligent use of the generated data. But the question is, how will companies capture clean data they can use? The answer is a new kind of software called RFID middleware. It manages the flow of data between tag readers and enterprise applications and is responsible for the quality, and therefore usability, of the information. Well-crafted middleware products and services should handle:

• Reader coordination. People can configure, monitor, implement and issue commands directly to readers through the middleware interface. For example, people can tell a reader when to "turn off." In some instances, middleware companies offer the ability to dynamically sense a reader's presence and link to it without having to write any code.

• Data smoothing and filtration. When tags are read incorrectly or when redundant data comes in, one job of the middleware is to correct these errors using algorithms. This provides a buffer that handles the extensive filtering and aggregation of data generated from the high volume of transactions. It prevents duplicate readings of the same tag and ensures the data's accuracy beyond the level of the readers.

• Data routing and integration. This controls decisions regarding what data is passed on to which applications. Whether companies are looking to integrate with existing supply-chain management (SCM), enterprise resource planning (ERP) or customer relationship management (CRM) systems, middleware provides the routing and integration capabilities, in some cases sending it on in batch uploads. It should also provide a library of adapters like those to popular warehouse management systems, such as Manhattan Associates and RedPrairie, as well as an application programming interface (API) for companies to build electronic product code (EPC) applications for matching advanced shipping notifications to purchase orders.

• Process management. This additional layer of intelligence is responsible for data monitoring and triggers events through customizable tasks based on business rules. It can alert systems and kick off processes associated with events like unauthorized product movement or unexpected inventory. Through the software, replenishment rules can be set up to notify inventory management systems of low or out-of-stock levels.

Taking up the challenge
Vendors are addressing problems from a number of angles, and a handful of providers have recently emerged to help fill the void, but the products are in their infancy:

• Enterprise application companies offer quick compliance wares. Driven by RFID mandates, SCM and warehouse management system providers like Provia, Manhattan Associates, RedPrairie and SAP offer software ranging from single, standalone products focused on compliance that will include reader coordination, data filtering and business logic.

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• Companies take advantage of early learning. Names like GlobeRanger, OatSystems, ConnecTerra and DataBrokers offer standalone products that filter and aggregate data and incorporate business rules and task management. These companies are still in their early stages with only a few clients, but they are benefiting from their initial experiences.

• Infrastructure software makers gear up. Companies like Sun Microsystems, IBM, Oracle and Microsoft are extending their middleware products to handle RFID requirements. Sun has recently released a middleware offering that works with its Sun ONE integration server, and IBM is under way with an offering of its own, running pilot tests with Procter & Gamble, as well as with Tesco in the United Kingdom. Oracle has done some prototyping, and Microsoft has begun to move ahead with pilot programs. For example, it just announced work it's been doing with KiMs, a Danish snack food company.

• RFID hardware veterans make use of their expertise. RFID hardware provider RF Code has entered the middleware space with a customizable product and partnerships with companies like Trenstar and Hitachi. Matrics is marketing its Visibility Manager software product to manage the data from its tags and readers. We also expect Zebra, Check Point Software and Intermec to extend their printer and labeling product lines to handle some middleware functionality.

Meeting middleware requirements
Because a significant amount of the cost of implementing an RFID system will come from integrating diverse hardware and software products, companies should run tests with a middleware vendor they trust. In 2004, this means:

• Test existing vendors for middleware functionality. Companies required to deploy an RFID system by the end of 2004 have little time to shop around, and many will opt to use a bolt-on solution to existing warehouse management systems. Although this may provide fewer benefits in the long run, it does address the issue of compliance. However, companies taking this approach still face risks. Be sure to evaluate warehouse management offerings against RFID middleware requirements.

• Reach for multisite deployments. Companies that are testing RFID deployments across multiple physical locations should look beyond a single product or service for warehouse management systems. New applications from vendors like OatSystems, Intermec and GlobeRanger are aggressively aligning the partnerships that will allow deployment of different readers, labels and sensors depending on the physical characteristics of a location or shipment.

© 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.