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RFID System Components and Costs

A radio frequency identification system that delivers business value includes more than just tags and readers.
By Bob Violino
Readers can internal or external antennas. Readers with external antennas can have one or more ports for connecting reader antennas (the newest readers have up to eight antenna ports). Readers can also have input/output ports for connecting to external devices. An input port might be connected to an electric eye that runs on the reader when something breaks its beam. An output port might connect to a program logic controller, conveyor sorter or other device controlled by the reader. Readers also have ports for connecting to a computer or network. Older readers use serial ports. Most newer readers have Ethernet, Wi-Fi or USB ports.

The reader's price depends on its features and functionality. The list price of readers may not include the price of antennas and cabling. Companies should also consider the price of installing readers and the price of running electric cables to areas where readers will be installed. And the current generation of EPC readers are not all the same. End users say some readers and reader antennas work better than others of the same make and model. So there may be additional costs for testing. (Independent test labs, such as the RFID Alliance Lab, offer objective information on RFID products, which can reduce need for each company to test products.)

Middleware and Servers
Middleware is a generic term used to describe software that resides between the RFID reader and enterprise applications. It's a critical component of any RFID system, because the middleware takes the raw data from the reader—a reader might read the same tag 100 times per second—filters it and passes on the useful event data to back-end systems. Middleware plays a key role in getting the right information to the right application at the right time.

Companies will need to buy tags and have them tested
There are many RFID middleware products on the market. All do some basic filtering, but many also perform additional functions. Some middleware manages RFID readers: It monitors their health, configures them, sends software updates and so on. Other middleware may manage the data recorded in databases for enterprise applications to use.

And some middleware has its own applications, often for a specific industry. One application might be confirmation of shipment and receipt. When a product is sent to a retailer, the middleware confirms the shipment and sends an electronic message to the retailer with the EPCs in the shipment. When the retailer receives the goods, receipt is confirmed and a message is sent to the supplier. The retailer doesn't need to be running the same middleware because most RFID middleware is based on standardized Internet languages, such as XML, and protocols, such as Simple Object Access Protocol. (For an in-depth look at RFID middleware and the leading providers, subscribers should read RFID to ERP: The Land Between).

The cost of middleware varies from vendor to vendor and is usually based on the number of locations where it will be installed, the complexity of the application and many other factors. Forrester Research put the cost of middleware at $183,000 for a $12 billion manufacturer looking to meet the RFID tagging requirements of a major retailer.

Companies will also need to purchase servers to run middleware within a warehouse, distribution center or production facility. These servers are sometimes called edge servers, because they are close to the edge of the network where the digital world meets the real world. Edge servers are standard computer servers. They typically do not have any special hardware, and they connect to readers using serial or Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports.

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