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RFID to ERP: The Land Between

The focus has been on tags and readers, but the middleware that processes data from RFID readers and passes it to enterprise systems is critical. Eric Ipsen looks at the trends and key vendors in this crucial area.
By Bob Violino
Apr 12, 2003—April 14, 2003 - There's a tendency, particular in the business press, to look at information technology as a series of advances -- some large, some small -- in computing. In fact, IT has evolved steadily with one purpose: To get more accurate, timely information to the workers who need it, so they can make better decisions. RFID is simply the next phase of this evolution. It has many people excited, and rightly so, because of its ability to capture accurate, real-time data.

There's only one problem. Most of the advances in RFID over the past couple of years have been around lowering the tag costs and improving reader performance. This focus on hardware is important, but RFID hardware isn't of much value without software that can process data from readers and pass it on to enterprise systems. The good news is there is an increasing amount of activity in the all-important area of "connectivity middleware." This software layer, which resides between the RFID readers and the enterprise applications, is critical because without it, companies have no way to take advantage of low-cost RFID tags and readers. The aim of this article is to provide an overview of the RFID middleware landscape, explain who the key players are and describe the products that they offer.

RFID has been around for a long time, and it's no accident that it has become the focus of attention now. The IT evolution has reached a stage where companies need accurate, real-time data and have the infrastructure in place to cope with it. For those who would like to understand this in more depth, I've produced a sidebar that explains the role of enterprise resource planning (ERP), supply chain management (SCM) and customer relationship management (CRM) software (see RFID and the Evolution of IT).

Generally speaking, companies have been trying to sew together all of the data gathering, data processing and analysis and data delivery systems into a seamless whole. RFID readers will capture data, but companies need middleware to process the data and feed it to enterprise systems in a way they can use it.
Completely new protocols are evolving to provide for dynamic near-real-time communication between readers and software using the Internet or other networked platforms.

There is also a new market segment comprising software vendors that manage data collection and other computing devices connected to corporate networks. Sometimes this market is called intelligent device management (IDM), device relationship manage (DRM) or some other term. These terms can mean various things, but in general, they cover products that enable companies to do some or all of the following:
>Schedule unattended outbound data exchange, transparent to end-users.
>Provide hands-free maintenance, remote control and diagnostics.
>Support and configure a variety of connection transports and protocols.
>Deploy applications enterprise-wide or to a select group of locations.
>Capture and store hardware and software asset information.
>Deployment, automate and management anti-virus detection systems.
>Create detailed audit trails with logging and reporting to easily identify failed polling or communications sessions.
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