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Finding lost IT with RFID

Vendors release RFID tracking products for data centers

October 6, 2010 06:48 AM ET

Computerworld - LAS VEGAS -- Vendors are increasingly trying to sell users on the idea that they need to stick RFID tags on IT equipment to keep track of it. Users are interested in this technology because they would much rather automate inventory tracking then go server-to-server with a bar code scanner and clipboard.

But the new push for RFID tags in data centers also hints at a larger issue: There may be a significant amount of equipment that can't be located and is, in effect, lost.

Misplaced equipment, particularly "ghost server" systems that may still be drawing power but perform no work and may be difficult to locate, have long been recognized as a problem. Vendors offer estimates, ranging from single to low double digits, on the number of servers either misplaced or working as ghosts. It means that users may be wasting a significant amount of money on electricity, lease and maintenance fees.

At the Afcom data center conference, two vendors released new products with different approaches. Even though the products appear to be relatively inexpensive, some users said they could have trouble justifying the purchase.

Methode Data Solutions Group in Richardson, Texas, uses a passive RFID tag, which is activated by a signal from an RFID reader, for each server in a rack.

"Think of it as a GPS for your assets," said Larry Lozon, general manager of the group. The cost is about $200 to $400 per rack.

The approach used by RF Code in Austin is to use an active RFID system that tracks rack locations by sending out a beacon to a reader. Each tag costs about $14.

Eric Moore, enterprise data center manager at a regional hospital in Illinois, would like to have RFID tags on his equipment because he needs to know if someone is moving or adding servers in his data center. He just completed an asset inventory but said the inventories have a limited shelf life because of ongoing changes.

But justifying the move to RFID is difficult, said Moore. "It's more of 'nice to have' than 'need' right now," he said.

That physical servers fall into disuse is a problem that Dimitri Mundarain, group manager for data center operations at Citrix Systems, discovered when he moved 680 servers to a collocation facility in 2004. He found that about 10% of the servers were doing absolutely nothing.

Today, Mundarain said, his environment is completely virtualized. The ability to create virtual servers also means creating a logical obsolescence for them as well, which gives him better control of his environment. Previously, his group used to revisit physical servers only when they needed to upgrade the hardware. With this environment, he doesn't see a need for RFID tags.

RFID security is an issue with Rosner Mehahem, a senior project manager at MSR Engineering and Development Ltd. in Israel. He said some of his government customers don't like the active RFID tags because the information they transmit can be read outside the data center.

But Mitch Medford, CEO of RF Code, said the data being transmitted is just a meaningless number that tells nothing about the equipment. The data associated with the number is behind the customer's firewall, he said.

"I would love to use RFID, but it's not in the budget," said Scott Nahman, a data center manager with the U.S. federal government. For now, equipment is checked by scanning the bar codes on it. If anything is lost, you "don't go home from work until it's found," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed Thibodeau RSS. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Read more about Data Center in Computerworld's Data Center Topic Center.



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