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RFID Middleware Change is Certain, Direction is Not

This is the final part of a three-part series that examines middleware and other RFID integration options and the issues surrounding them. This third installment questions whether RFID middleware has a place in a maturing RFID market and what role it might play.
Aug 28, 2006This article was originally published by RFID Update.

August 28, 2006—This is the third 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." The second installment, ERP Support Squeezes RFID Middleware, analyzed how forthcoming software standards from EPCglobal plus developments from mainstream IT, ERP and other application software providers may impact future RFID integration.

Middleware in general and RFID middleware in particular is often regarded as an interim technology. The school of thought is that as technologies, standards and markets become more mature, the need for middleware to connect disparate systems will disappear. That leaves systems planners wondering if they should invest in RFID middleware or architectures that require it.

Yet middleware never seems to go away. The general IT world has far more standards and open protocols than the RFID segment, but mainstream middleware is becoming more important, not less. In fact, Gartner pegged the worldwide application integration and middleware software market last year at $8.5 billion, a 7.4 percent increase from the previous year.

Those who think RFID middleware use will grow and those who think it will decline can each find strong evidence to support their points of view. Intelligent RFID readers with embedded software can output data that is clean and ready for use by software applications; Cisco can enable networks to filter RFID data; EPCglobal is developing multiple software standards; WMS, ERP and other packaged providers are writing support for raw RFID input into their applications; and Microsoft is taking major steps to add widespread support for RFID. Yet every market study of RFID middleware predicts robust growth.

This contradiction can be explained by saying middleware will be part of RFID's future, but middleware products will likely be different than they are now.

"Middleware is great as a first-generation solution to help people learn about RFID," says Dave Macias of Omnitrol Networks, a middleware appliance maker. "There are no problems with it, it's just time to evolve to something that's more efficient."

Finding a Role in a Maturing Market

Several middleware providers say intelligent readers and increased enterprise system support for RFID are positive developments, despite the potential competitive threat.

"ERP and WMS support for RFID will make it a lot more convenient to implement the technology," says John Beans of Blue Vector Systems, which makes integration appliances for RFID, sensor and bar code input. "Those applications will take over the top-end logic. But not all logic is at the top end."

Beans gives an example of how middleware creates value for a company with an RFID-enabled ERP system plus intelligent readers at the edge of its operations: "Look at a grocery store. Some stores have up to 25 percent waste in perishables. The supermarket chain knows it needs to sell the oldest lettuce first to reduce spoilage, but it doesn't always follow FIFO rules." In this scenario, the chain-wide ERP system knows the status of all lettuce inventory. Each individual intelligent RFID reader at a store knows which case of lettuce is the oldest among all those it read. But something at the store level needs to aggregate the data from all RFID readers on site, determine which is the overall oldest case, and direct the stock clerk to use it first for replenishment. "The reader can be smart, but you still need logic higher up to correlate all the readers."

History Lessons

The history of technology evolution in two markets close to RFID -- bar code and wireless networks -- also suggests there will be an ongoing need for RFID middleware.

A few years ago, the middleware hot spot in the data collection industry was for software that could help input bar code data to SAP and other ERP applications. ERP has improved its bar code support, but even now printing a bar code label from an SAP application, or entering bar code data into it, is often not a simple process. Many companies who run SAP and bar code systems still use middleware in between.

In wireless networking, IEEE 802.11 standards have removed most of the integration and interoperability issues that plagued the market and inhibited adoption. But there is still a tremendous need for network management systems, and there are many successful wireless device management applications. It is doubtful RFID systems will ever be as plug-and-play as 802.11-standard wireless access points, network cards and other devices. It's also doubtful that mainstream IT management products like HP OpenView and competitive offerings from Tivoli and Computer Associates will equal RFID middleware soon, if ever, in the specific features RFID devices need for management and optimization.

"We don't know where the overall RFID middleware market will go, but there clearly will be an ongoing need for device management-type middleware," says Drew Nathanson, director of AIDC & RFID at Venture Development Corporation (VDC), an industry research, analyst and consulting firm.

There is a clear need and strong market for RFID middleware now, and many ongoing needs for device management and other features have been identified. Other than that, the role RFID middleware plays, the form it takes, and the degree it will be needed in the future are not so clear.

"For the RFID industry to grow it needs to get to where devices are truly plug-and-play," says Marc Osofsky, vice president of marketing and product management for OATSystems. "Some people think middleware is going away, but it takes a lot more than people think to get interoperability between devices and to manage them effectively. There is a tendency to underestimate the complexity."

"RFID middleware will undergo an evolution," says Pete Poorman of GlobeRanger. "It will still be there, but may be somewhat invisible."
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