Comcast Puts RFID in Data Centers to Track Assets

By Claire Swedberg

The solution, provided by Asset Vue, using hardware made by RCD Technology and Element ID, enables Comcast's staff to conduct audits using RFID readers in mere hours rather than days, and to view the locations of servers on its database.

Media, entertainment and communications company Comcast Corp. has begun employing radio frequency identification this month to manage nearly 6,000 IT assets at a 20,000-square-foot data center, with installations currently underway at two additional data centers, located in Colorado and Illinois, expected to be completed this year. The solution, provided by Asset Vue, a supplier of asset and data-center management solutions, utilizes passive EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags from RCD Technology, an Element ID MAS2 mobile reader on a cart, and Asset Vue software to manage location data regarding all IT assets within the center, as well as provide alerts to those conducting inventories, thereby indicating when a server is not at its expected location.

The founders of Asset Vue—which was launched in 2010—had been providing data-center management solutions for 20 years. But only recently did they determine that the cost of RFID tags had dropped to the point that an RFID solution would be affordable for data-center applications. The company brought its solution to Comcast in order to suggest a proof-of-concept, says Sean Cotter, Asset Vue's president. Based on the information provided and a demonstration of the technology, Comcast opted to skip any further proof-of-concept testing, and to instead install the full system at its Pennsylvania location, tagging approximately 6,000 assets.

Asset Vue's Mike Brode

Asset-management accuracy is of high value at Comcast, explains Richard Werner, Comcast Cable's executive director of data-center management, but manual audits of the servers within the data center (conducted quarterly) could take weeks to complete. To accomplish that task, employees would have to open every data cabinet (or rack) and use a magnifying glass and a flashlight to read each serial number, make and model, and then manually record that information, along with each asset's location, on paper. The RFID solution enables workers to simply read the tags, and the read data is forwarded to Asset Vue software, in which the tag ID is linked to details about each asset. That information is then fed to the facility's existing data-center infrastructure management (DCIM) software.

The system employs RCD Technology's Sentry-AST Multi Surface passive tag, which measures 36 millimeters by 10 millimeters (1.4 inches by 0.4 inch) in length and width, and 5.6 millimeters (0.2 inch) in thickness, with 96 bits of Electric Product Code (EPC) memory and 512 bits of user memory. As the name implies, the Sentry-AST Multi Surface tag is rugged and designed to work on a variety of surfaces, whether metal or non-metal. One tag is affixed to a rack or cabinet, and is married in the software to the other tags attached to as many as 40 servers or other assets assigned to that particular cabinet or rack. Asset Vue software then provides the data center's staff or auditors with a visual representation of the rack that identifies when assets are either present or missing. The software also allows for two-person validation of every new asset in the system: One engineer installs the equipment on a rack and inputs it into the Asset Vue database, but a second engineer must verify that the information was entered correctly, thereby greatly reducing the chances of human error.

Because the tagging process can be time-consuming, Asset Vue and RCD Technology opted to provide tags already assigned to a specific rack or server. Comcast's data-center management solution provided RCD with a list of racks and servers or other IT assets located on each rack. RCD Technology then temporarily attached the adhesive tags to 8.5-by-11-inch sheets of paper, says Phil Koppenhofer, RCD's VP of sales, with each sheet of paper representing a single rack. Therefore, one tag on the top of the sheet was designated for a specific rack, while each remaining tag was printed and encoded for a particular server. In that way, staff members had only to go to a rack, attach a tag and then affix the remaining tags to servers and other assets on that rack (with printed information to identify that server on the front of the tag). This process, the company reports, made the tagging of assets much faster than when using a method of inputting tag IDs and asset details into the system as each tag was applied.

For inventory purposes, Comcast's staff can now push an RFID reader "mobile collection" cart through aisles in order to read tags. This device includes a laptop computer wired to an RFID reader with a built-in antenna that captures the tag numbers of installed equipment. The cart also has a built-in rechargeable battery, as well as a handheld reader antenna that can be used to verify the specific rack in which the asset tag is located. A user can roll the cart through aisles, walk past each rack and view the read data on the laptop screen, or sweep the handheld antenna across the front of each rack. The reader cart then transmits that data wirelessly to the back-end server, where Asset Vue software resides.

The system not only assists with audits and inventory checks, but also provides greater visibility into the number of servers located at a particular spot, areas in which there may be more space for additional servers to be located, and the amount that can stored there. This function helps data centers plan their own expansions, says Mike Brode, Asset Vue's executive director of sales, and spares them from building out more space for servers than necessary.

Installation at the Pennsylvania site began during the third quarter of 2011, and went live over the past few weeks. Though the system has only been in use for several weeks at that facility, Werner says he already sees benefits from the deployment, including improved inventory accuracy, a reduction in time required for employees to execute quarterly audits, and decreased staff travel and expenses. What's more, he says, it also serves to improve worker morale, by eliminating manual and tedious audits previously necessary to determine which servers are located in which areas. Learning how to operate the system, he adds, requires "very minimal training due to its simplicity and ease of use."

Given the time savings for audits, as well as the improved asset inventory accuracy, Werner expects that he will recoup the cost of the technology within 1.5 years.

According to Brode, the company is also rolling out the system at a Pennsylvania university, and is presently in discussions with several other potential customers as well, which may opt to use the system at their own data centers. In addition, he says, IT firms and other companies with data centers have indicated that due to their growth, and the need to manage power consumption, the value of an RFID system is growing. The technology can provide a view into the facility's exact inventory, he says, and indicate the amount of power being used, thus enabling the data center to better manage itself, and to ascertain how many servers need to be installed there.