RFID ripples through software industry

Big name vendors including Sun Microsystems, SAP, Oracle, and IBM have caught the RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) buzz. Spurred by a WalMart Stores edict that requires suppliers to tag all shipping cases and palettes with RFID by 2006, the vendors are rewriting their enterprise applications to integrate RFID data.

"Walmart's marching orders are heard across the industry," said Joshua Greenbaum, principal, Enterprise Applications Consulting.

The changes on queue include RFID extensions to Oracle's database and application server and SAP R3 applications, higher-level integration of RFID with Sun's SunOne integration platform, and integration with IBM's DB2 Information Integrator to facilitate the handoff of data from RFID readers to enterprise applications.

Most industry analysts argue that RFID tagging is a transformational development that will ultimately change the way businesses plan, price, distribute and advertise products. But for the present, enterprise application vendors are extending their products to handle an expected boom in RFID data.

Until now, a bar coded item used to sit on a retail shelf and did not generate any data until it was scanned by a bar code reader. And then the data was read only once.

RFID, on the other hand, is a passive technology that does not require human interaction to scan. A reader can extract location and product description data from a tagged item every 250 milliseconds. Some readers are capable of reading data from 200 tags per second. The result is a data increase of more than one thousand times above traditional scanning methods.

In response, Sun Microsystems is developing a middleware product to manage the influx of RFID data to filter out noise and duplicate data, according to Solutions Product Architect Sean Clark.

Currently in its pilot phase and commercially available by first quarter 2004, Sun's middleware will comply with Savant, an industry standard for this aspect of RFID filtering. "Savant acts as the buffering layer between readers and enterprise applications," Clark said.

In addition, Sun is writing a software component that will implement its version of the RFID industry standard EPC (Electronic Product Code) Information Service.

That component will act as the track-and-trace database for the EPC network of users, running on top of Sun's J2EE server. "Companies that participate in the network exchange data with one another," Clark said.

The EPC component will also integrate with Sun's Identity Server for security. Longer term, Clark said, the SunOne Integration EAI and B2B servers -- to be merged in about 18 months -- will be reworked to tightly integrate RFID data.

"We do some of this, but now it is generic. It will be more specific to vendors, like SAP implementations," Clark added.

SAP for its part is piloting a number of application innovations with Proctor & Gamble to incorporate RFID data into SAP R3, according to Raymond Blanchard, business development director at SAP's Business Solutions Group, Manufacturing.

The pilot is described as an AutoID infrastructure designed to shield applications from erroneous data while integrating only the contextually relevant data. "It can map the arrival of a palette to the bill of materials and close out the order to cash process," Blanchard said.

The infrastructure works, in part, by providing a unique identifier within R3 to each event. Blanchard said SAP will also support RFID data in its advanced planning optimization suite. "It will be event driven rather than planning driven," Blanchard said.

In a second stage, SAP applications will be designed to enable sharing information across enterprises using the NetWeaver platform, for example.

The significance of RFID data cannot be overstated, according to Greenbaum. "Location and product description is at the heart of the commerce chain," he said.

Oracle is attacking the new data stream on three fronts, according to Jon Chorley, Oracle's director of Inventory and CPG Development

The next iteration of Oracle's Application Server 11i.10, which will be released in nine and 12 months, will have extensions that talk to RFID readers. Once read, Oracle's e-business suite will give its customers the ability to use the data to kick off a business transaction.

"When a palette comes off a truck or is loaded onto a truck it can create a receipt without user interaction," Chorley said. In the future, he continued, business processes will change with wide spread adoption of RFID. Database capabilities will have to be extended to reflect more complex queries such as tracking the life history of a container of milk to see how long it was outside its temperature tolerance.

"That kind of query is extremely difficult to construct, and it is a performance challenge using current techniques," Chorley said.

IBM demonstrated its RFID capabilities earlier this month at the Electronic Code Symposium. Big Blue was able to track and handoff RFID data from manufacturer to warehouse to distributor to retail to sale without actually moving the data between systems.

"We can access all of those systems, federate the data from multiple, heterogeneous sources, and have it respond to a single database query," said Dan Wolfson, distinguished engineer at IBM Software Group. The capability was demonstrated using IBMs DB2 Information Integrator product launched about 3 months ago.

Once RFID technologies begin handling item-level tracking, such as an individual can of soda, it will give managers an increased ability to see into their supply chain. However, companies will need to move from so-called constraint-based planning applications to applications that can react in real time. "It will blur the line between execution and planning," Oracle's Chorley said.

That's an opinion shared by almost all of the players in the RFID industry. By designing models that are based on data captured through RFID, companies will have computers, not people, directing the distribution of goods, pricing models, and advertising models.

"It will be better than what currently exists today, because it is based on real-world data, and computers can digest thousands of more variables to make decisions," Sun's Clark said.

More about Enterprise Applications ConsultingIBM AustraliaOracleSAP AustraliaSun Microsystems

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