RFID tags could help manage data center assets

Compliance worries? Automate the tracking process

Data center staffers are typically not employed to maintain inventories of hardware assets, yet accounting for the valuable data that servers house is essential to ensuring regulatory compliance, according to a technology research firm.

To that end, the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to manage data center assets such as servers and routers is gaining adoption, said Jonathan Collins, a U.K.-based RFID analyst at ABI Research.

Maintaining inventories of data center hardware is often a manual, lengthy task that can result in inaccuracies, said Collins. "There's a manpower cost there," he said. "They need to walk around and check these things and enter this in the database."

With RFID technology, Collins said employees could simply walk around the data center with handheld RFID readers and determine what's present and what's missing. Eliminating a manual process can save employee time that could be best applied elsewhere, Collins said, adding that RFID technology can help ensure inventory accuracy.

This is a point of sensitivity for certain industries -- including financial services -- that need to ensure certain audit capabilities of their IT infrastructure. "If a bank can't find one of its servers, there are regulatory obligations around being able to retrieve that data," he said.

Regulatory compliance aside, IT managers who lease hardware would benefit from the accuracy of RFID-driven asset management, said Collins, because they can trim costs by better identifying which equipment is actually being used and which is lying around gathering dust.

According to ABI Research, IT asset tracking may now encompass only a mere fraction of a percent of the worldwide RFID asset-tracking market, but that figure will grow to more than 10% by the end of 2013.

IT managers can use passive or active RFID technology. With passive RFID, for instance, staff can use handheld readers to read tags placed on hardware that needs to be tracked. Also, readers can be placed above entrances leading from the data center so that hardware leaving the premises can be identified.

Introducing RFID in the data center is certainly "relatively easy compared to a retail supply chain," where a heavier reader infrastructure is required, said Collins.

The cost of passive and active RFID tags is about $1.50 Canadian ($1.31 U.S.) and $10 Canadian ($8.50 U.S.) each, respectively.

"Compared to the sum spent on the hardware itself and the data sitting on it," said Collins, "there's quite a good chance of ROI in a year and even 18 months."

An IT manager's ability to get approval from the business to implement RFID asset tracking will depend on the individual organization, said Collins, but he added that it's easy to comprehend the technology and its myriad applications beyond traditional uses such as fleet management and retail.

Another factor driving the RFID data center asset management market, said Collins, is the emergence of tags designed to sit on the metal casings of blade servers because metal can interfere with radio waves.

The industry is certainly warming to the idea of RFID for data center asset management, said Collins, citing groups such as the New York-based Financial Services Technology Consortium that are showing interest in the technology for financial institutions.

The FSTC declined to comment.

Data center hardware vendors, including Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM, have been selling hardware with integrated RFID tags. Just this summer, HP announced a service called HP Factory Express RFID Service to help customers track data center assets throughout their life cycles.

According to HP Chief Technology Officer Victor Garcia, the company is focused on creating an automated and "trusted" data center that provides dynamic access to computing resources. But a trusted data center requires security mechanisms and infrastructure and performance management, he said, "and you cannot have people doing that because people are always the weakest link. Automation becomes essential in data centers."

That's where RFID comes into play. IT managers, said Garcia, can now ask, "So how many servers do I actually have, and where are they?"

HP offers different RFID systems including movable and built-in sensors.

Garcia said he has observed plenty of interest in RFID data center asset tracking in different markets including financial, large retail and public-sector -- but he noted that the idea is feasible for any organization with a large data center to manage.

This story, "RFID tags could help manage data center assets" was originally published by ComputerWorld-Canada.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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