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Active RFID tags automate server asset management

Using RFID tags to track data center assets used to mean scanning them one by one, but new active tags broadcast themselves with nearly 100% accuracy.

Data center managers struggling to keep track of server and infrastructure assets now have a new weapon in their arsenal: active radio frequency identification (RFID) tags.

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Active RFID tags are the cornerstone of new server and infrastructure asset management software from Austin, Texas-based RF Code whose new RFID-based products aim to free data center administrators from burdensome manual data collection and inventory-related tasks by automating asset tracking. "Data center staffs that are stretched thin don't have the time to do their day-to-day work," said RF Code CEO Mitch Medford. "Yet they're asked to spend weeks collecting inventory data so they know where their assets are."

Data center staffs ... are stretched thin ... yet they're asked to spend weeks collecting inventory data.
Mitch Medford

RF Code's new three-component product is also designed to provide more accurate asset tracking capabilities than that available with traditional bar codes or "passive" RFID tags. Components include a rack-mounted reader, (the R200 Rack Reader); active RFID tags that don't require scanners or human intervention (of which there are three models: R100; R110 and R1200 based on where they are attached to servers), and software called Zone Manager. The rack-based reader lives on the network and includes two antennas that are installed on the front of the rack. The small RFID tags attach with adhesive to individual servers.

The active RFID tag advantage
Technology that tracks server assets is not new. For years, data centers have deployed bar codes and passive readers to keep tabs on servers (not to mention low-tech Post-it notes slapped on servers). According to Medford, such methods are onerous. Using bar codes requires someone equipped with a handheld scanner to physically make the rounds of a data center to collect data. Same goes for passive RFID tags because they must be energized by a reader within two feet.

Active RFID tags, on the other hand, have batteries and generate a signal; in RF Code's case, the tags are programmed to consistently generate a signal back to a reader every 10 seconds without human intervention. Because active RFID tags have their own power source, they tend to be bigger and more expensive than passive tags, but they also have more powerful transmission capabilities. Unobtrusively attaching active tags to servers has been a challenge, one that RF Code says it has tackled by creating small tags specifically designed to fit between servers in a rack.

RF Code already provides active RFID technology to track assets in industries including health care, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals; this is its first foray into data centers.

Zone Manager can be installed on any Windows or Linux-based server and communicates with the readers, which in turn communicate with the RFID tags. The software includes a rules-based engine to determine the location of tags. The software offers 100% rack-level precision when rack doors are closed, said Medford, and 96% precision with rack doors open, due to interference from adjacent racks. In that case, Medford says the software can pinpoint a server's location within two or three racks. Zone Manager then aggregates the location information from all the readers, which can then be integrated into back-end asset management systems from the likes of Aperture, BMC Software Inc., CA Inc. and IBM/Tivoli.

In addition to straining staff resources, Medford said there are other inherent problems with a manual method of inventory: Accuracy and timeliness. Between regular audits and inventory, data center staff typically move servers around or take them off the network, and manual methods may not capture all these changes. If those servers happened to be leased and the lease is up, data centers either have to locate the servers in question or buy them. The same goes for server maintenance contracts: Data centers that can't prove a server isn't being used still have to foot the maintenance bill.

David Keith, the director of government relations at Suffield, Ohio-based International Association of IT Asset Managers, a professional training organization for IT asset managers, sees a need among data centers for better IT asset inventory and active RFID tags. "This is a viable market and an expanding one," he said. Automating inventory such as what RF Code does will provide "better control of data center assets."

Small data centers need not apply
RF Code is targeting data centers with a minimum of 150 racks of servers. For a data center with 250 racks or more -- with 30 devices per rack -- RF Code says the list price of the system is about $412,000. That comes down to a total cost of $1.53 per device per year for three years. Any integration with back-end systems is not included in the initial price.

While saving money on leases and maintenance contracts may be good reasons to automate IT asset inventory, Medford thinks that freeing up data center personnel offers the most compelling argument. "It's all about doing more with more with less," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Megan Santosus, Features Writer .

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