Middleware Finds a Home

It's becoming easier to run middleware on fixed and handheld readers.
Published: July 31, 2016

Middleware is an essential component of any RFID system. The software manages readers, printer-encoders, sensors and other hardware, filters and aggregates the data, and passes it along to business applications. But a perennial challenge has been to find the best place to run middleware. While middleware can reside on a data center server, it’s more efficient if it’s close to the hardware components, so it can keep those devices running smoothly and respond instantly to the data. But housing a dedicated computer at each facility isn’t easy— factories and warehouses are often hostile places for equipment designed for a data center, and it requires someone who can maintain a computer in that setting.

Another option is to embed middleware directly in the reader. But most middleware packages require customization, and sometimes middleware is developed for a particular project. In either case, programming is involved, and most fixed and handheld readers don’t provide a welcoming platform for software engineers.

Middleware developed to run on a Windows PC, for example, won’t run inside a reader, which has a different CPU and operating system, and significant constraints on memory and storage. Custom jobs require a specialized programmer who can write code in an unfamiliar environment. Software developers also must contend with many restrictions that limit the ability of their middleware to coexist with reader firmware. Even fixing a bug can be challenging.

Companies looking to hire software engineers for their RFID project will find very few who have the necessary experience. But new options for deploying middleware may soon address these issues.

This year at RFID Journal LIVE!, I saw many RFID handheld readers that feature a “sled” into which you slide an iOS or Android smartphone. While originally developed to save on costs, they have the necessary processor power and memory to support middleware applications and provide a rich and familiar user interface. It’s also easy to find programmers skilled in writing software for smartphones. And the same smartphone features that let consumers install apps with a single touch make it easy to deploy and upgrade middleware on a sled reader.

For most fixed readers, embedding software remains a challenge. But at least one vendor, Harting Technology Group, makes a fixed reader with a programming environment suited to developers. Harting’s RF-R300 reader runs the standard Linux operating system, and uses Linux “container” technology to host user applications. Linux containers essentially create a walled-off virtual computer within the reader’s hardware, so the reader can host any Linux application without fear that it will interfere with the reader’s firmware.

A hosted application communicates with the reader through a virtual network channel, so programming in this environment is as easy as it is for an outboard PC. With 1 gigabyte of memory, there is room to host full-scale middleware data-capture applications. And Harting’s application-management software makes deployment and maintenance easy.

Reader vendors that address the needs of software developers will make it easier and less costly for end users to deploy RFID.

Ken Traub is the founder of Ken Traub Consulting, a Mass.-based firm providing services to com­panies that rely on advanced software technology to run their businesses. Send your software questions to swsavvy@kentraub.com.