RFID ripple likely to spawn a tsunami

All the big name vendors have joined the RFID buzz, announcing plans to sell products they hope will form part of the “next big thing”. Locally, IBM has more than a dozen customers tackling RFID pilots. But in reality, privacy and security concerns remain a serious obstacle to uptake of the tags. For example, Sydney’s Star City Casino has put more than 70,000 tags in uniforms to stop theft but companies are hesitant to plunge into more sophisticated applications. Sandra Rossi examines the latest developments in this special report

While Microsoft wants all its products related to inventory, retail management and distribution to include built-in support for RFID, the company’s lead product manager in Australia, Ross Dembecki, warns that consumer protection is warranted.

“It is one thing to use the technology as a tracking device, but how can we protect ourselves from infringements of privacy or even illegal collection of data? Imagine a thief with a scanner checking for the house with the best merchandise,” he said.

What a company’s transceiver detects via the tag’s signals, anyone can detect so security is a real concern.

“In practice, most RFID chips can only broadcast their ID a few metres depending on the size of the antenna and the power driving the tags as most are passive devices without power.”

Spurred in part by a Wal-Mart Stores’ edict that requires suppliers to tag all shipping cases and pallets with RFID by 2006, vendors are rewriting their enterprise applications to integrate RFID data.

The changes on cue include RFID extensions to Oracle’s database and application server and SAP R/3 applications, higher-level integration of RFID with Sun’s SunOne integration platform, and integration with IBM’s DB2 Information Integrator to facilitate the hand-off 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 barcoded item used to sit on a retail shelf generating no data until a barcode reader scanned it. And then the data was read only once.

RFID, on the other hand, is a passive technology that requires no human interaction to scan it. 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 an increase in data of more than one thousand times of 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.

In its pilot phase now and commercially available by first quarter 2004, Sun’s middleware will comply with Savant, an industry standard for this aspect of RFID filtering.

SAP for its part is piloting a number of application innovations with Procter & Gamble to incorporate RFID data into SAP R3.

The pilot is described as an AutoID infrastructure designed to shield applications from erroneous data while integrating only the contextually relevant data.

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

Oracle is attacking the new data stream on three fronts with the next iteration of its Application Server 11i.10 to 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. IBM has already demonstrated its RFID capabilities and is able to track and hand-off RFID data from manufacturer to warehouse to distributor to retail to sale without actually moving the data between systems.

“We can access all 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 IBM’s DB2 Information Integrator product launched about three months ago.

With Ephraim Schwartz.

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