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A Guide to Today's Middleware

The software platform between your RFID hardware and business applications could determine the success of your deployment.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jun 01, 2006—Companies deploying RFID—in particular, Electronic Product Code technologies—in the open supply chain can spend months testing the latest RFID tags and interrogators, configuring hardware to improve read rates or discovering the best tag placement for RF-unfriendly products or assets. But until they can manage the encoding and reading of those tags, put the data into context and tap into the greater visibility and efficiencies an RFID system can offer, the physical layer of the RFID deployment is of no real value.

Enter RFID middleware—a software platform that resides between your RFID interrogators and your enterprise software. Middleware is essential if you want to expand a small pilot project to a larger, integrated system that can provide internal benefits, not just mandate compliance. That's because middleware can control and configure a network of tag-reading devices; collect and filter the data; link the data with application software, such as warehouse, order and transportation management systems; and process the data using business rules, so you can improve your operations. Some middleware products also can link RFID data with data collected from various types of bar codes, sensors and other data collection devices.

Taking the time to evaluate your needs, the middleware and the provider will go a long way toward ensuring the success of your RFID deployment.

Ready to sign up? There are plenty of companies that would like to sell you middleware. A few years ago, there was only a handful of pioneering companies offering middleware platforms designed specifically for RFID systems. Today, the number has mushroomed, with middleware offerings from the smallest IT shops to the largest enterprise software providers. But not all middleware products—or middleware providers—are alike. Here's what you need to know to make a smart decision.

Key Functions
First, let's take a more detailed look at the many different functions RFID middleware can perform. Few, if any, products will do all of these, but once you focus on the key functions you need, you can narrow down your middleware options.

Manage devices.
Some types of middleware control all of the hardware—interrogators, printer-encoders and input/output devices, such as light trees or motion sensors linked to the interrogators—needed in an RFID system. They can monitor the health of an interrogator and alert administrators when one malfunctions. If that happens, middleware might automatically activate a backup interrogator device, so that the system doesn't suffer any downtime. Middleware also manages upgrades to the network or devices it supports.

Process data.
As tag data is collected, it must be filtered so that duplicate reads aren't passed along to back-end systems. This function becomes increasingly important as the size and complexity of RFID systems grow.
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