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ERP Support Squeezes RFID Middleware

This is part two of a three-part series that examines middleware and other RFID integration options and the issues surrounding them. This second installment analyzes how forthcoming software standards from EPCglobal plus developments from mainstream IT, ERP and other application software providers may impact future RFID integration.
Aug 17, 2006This article was originally published by RFID Update.

August 17, 2006—This is the second installment of a three-part series examining middleware and other RFID integration options and the issues surrounding them. We use the term "middleware" broadly and loosely to refer to software or devices that connect RFID readers and the data they collect to enterprise information systems. The first installment, What Is RFID Middleware and Where Is It Needed?, and its sidebar, A Primer on Types of RFID Middleware, segmented different types of specific software and hardware offerings that are commonly grouped together as "RFID middleware."

Planning systems that were built on getting once-nightly updates really don't know what to make of RFID systems that can make hundreds of status readings on dozens of items each second. That's where middleware comes in -- to put raw data into context so application software can turn it into information. However there is a clear trend towards application software being able to process RFID input directly, applying its own business logic to decide which RFID reads to act on and which to ignore. Mainstream IT computing and network infrastructures are also becoming more RFID-friendly. These developments will undoubtedly change the need and role for RFID middleware.

RFID support in mainstream IT equipment and applications may not go deep enough to supplant the value of middleware, but it certainly is broad. Consider:
  • Last month IBM successfully piloted the new Electronic Product Code Information Services (EPCIS) software standard that makes EPC RFID data easier to integrate among enterprises and applications.
     
  • EPCglobal is setting open, interoperable software standards including Electronic Product Code Information Service (EPCIS), Application Level Events (ALE) and the Low Level Reader Protocol (LLRP). Each remove barriers to interoperability and efficient RFID data processing.
     
  • Cisco Systems, the world's largest networking company, is adopting its Application Oriented Networking (AON) technology to support RFID. Cisco is putting middleware functions onto the network, similar to some of the features provided by appliance-type middleware solutions.
     
  • SAP, whose enterprise resource planning (ERP) software runs at 34,000 organizations, including many of the consumer packaged goods (CPG) manufacturers and retailers who are driving RFID adoption, now supports RFID integration and application development through its NetWeaver application and integration platform and Auto-ID Infrastructure (AII). SAP supported RFID in a relative heartbeat compared to the time it took to open its applications for easier bar code input.
     
  • Oracle, whose databases run virtually everywhere and who rivals SAP in the enterprise software market, has sensor servers and software to help integrate RFID data into business systems. The company is also collaborating with Intel to help bring RFID into mainstream IT.
     
  • Microsoft, which runs everywhere, pledged to support RFID in an upcoming release of BizTalk server, its business process integration framework. Among the many resources and tools Microsoft plans to release are application programming interfaces (APIs) that will help its extensive developer community create and integrate RFID applications.
     
  • Leading warehouse management systems (WMS) and supply chain software vendors started down the RFID support road well before ERP vendors, so packaged applications with built-in RFID interfaces and business processes are already on the market.
"The top three players in enterprise software are all doing the same thing -- making it easier to use RFID. Middleware vendors will be squeezed," says Louis Bianchin of RFID market research firm Venture Development Corporation (VDC). "BizTalk support for RFID puts Microsoft as a competitor to traditional RFID middleware firms. It could make the need for another $30,000 to $50,000 piece of software for the RFID system less important, unless the suppliers manage to differentiate themselves with added features."

These developments will simplify RFID integration but will not make it plug-and-play. RFID support from mainstream IT providers still leaves plenty of room for middleware. After all, many companies who have packaged ERP systems still integrate third-party packages and custom applications to get best-of-breed performance.

Standards aid EPC segment

EPCglobal's software efforts may have more far-reaching effects on how RFID middleware is developed and used. The LLRP standard in development will make it easier for software to interact with readers to obtain specific data. Tag data standards will help software access the specific information it wants from tags and ignore the rest, much like Application Identifiers and Data Identifiers helped drive inter-company bar code applications. ALE, which EPCglobal has already standardized, provides an interface to access filtered tag data. EPCIS simplifies data sharing among enterprises and provides some interoperability among software applications.

A quote from Unilever's vice president of IT Pete Jackson in IBM's press release on its successful EPCIS pilot neatly summarizes the benefit of software standards: "By replacing manually intensive data exchange tasks with automated processes, more time is available for analysis and value creation." Unilever plans to use EPCIS to access and analyze data from its RFID-enabled retail customers.

Pete Poorman of GlobeRanger, who co-chaired the EPCglobal ALE committee, says the EPC standards will be "market accelerators" for RFID without necessarily impairing the market for RFID middleware. The standards provide a foundation but do not solve all the integration, device management and application development changes that are specific to each RFID user.

"Middleware will continue to be part of the RFID operation, it just won't be the headline story. We envision software becoming more automatic, but people are still learning a lot about how to use and manage RFID over time. Best practices haven't really emerged," says Poorman. "There have been people proclaiming the death of middleware forever. I think it's going to be around a long time."

The final installment in this series on middleware will present a range of views on what direction RFID middleware could take going forward. Will the "middleware is dead" proclaimers one day be right?
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