RFID can help locate that misplaced server, HP says

Ever find yourself scouring rows of data center racks for a particular device that was retired from its initial function but might be suitable for a new project? There's an easier way to zero in on the location of IT gear, HP says.

Last week the vendor shared details about a system it tested with grocery chain Meijer that uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to monitor and track data center assets.

HP's system uses RFID readers and tags to keep tabs on individual servers and network equipment, as well as server and storage enclosures. It monitors when devices are added or removed from racks, and it can provide historical data related to the location of gear.

"We tag each asset in the data center with RFID, and we equip each rack with our custom RFID reader," says Cyril Brignone, R&D project manager at HP Labs. "The reader monitors the rack and all of the assets on a specific rack and reports their location with 1U accuracy."

Even if a router or server isn't being used, it can be detected if it's tagged. "If it is set in a rack, the system will track it -- independent of the status of the asset. The asset can be on or off, connected to the network or not connected to the network," Brignone says.

HP Labs developed the technology to help data center managers improve the accuracy of their inventory efforts, increase security and reduce data center auditing costs.

Many data center managers use manual inventory methods to keep track of gear, which can be time consuming and error prone, even when done with barcodes. In addition, many companies only conduct a physical inventory two or three times a year, and the results become quickly outdated, Brignone says.

With HP's RFID tags and readers, racks become self-managing, he says. The readers can recognize when devices are moved or added and forward information about the change of status to back-end systems, such as an IT asset management application.

The RFID data adds an extra level of detail to typical asset management applications, which focus on telling data center managers where specific IT gear is deployed in a network and how it is linked to other devices. With asset management software, the emphasis is usually on virtual dependencies, not physical locations, Brignone says. "You don't really know where physically the assets are," he says. "There's kind of a mismatch between the amount of data you have on the virtual side and the amount of data you have on the physical side of things."

With HP's RFID system, companies will be able to fill in those blanks, Brignone says.

HP hasn't yet put a price on its RFID system for data center asset tracking. It created prototypes, but they're not commercially available. HP Labs just completed its first external test of the technology at Meijer in Grand Rapids, Mich., which operates 170 grocery and specialty stores.

HP isn't alone pursuing RFID asset-tracking opportunities. Sun offers similar RFID tools for tracking IT gear. In addition, a number of vendors, such as PanGo Networks, target a broader market for wireless-enabled asset tracking.

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