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RFID and the Evolution of IT

Radio frequency identification is just the latest stage in the ongoing evolution of systems that enable companies to gather, analyze and act upon information.
By Bob Violino
Apr 12, 2003—April 14, 2003 - RFID is sometimes portrayed as some radical new technology that will transform corporate information technology systems. In fact, it is part of a clear line of evolution that dates back to the first enterprise computer.

There have been two common problems since the beginning of the information age -- getting good information into computers and sharing information among users. For much of the past 20 years, the real advances have been around sharing data. In many cases, information is still entered manually.

Personal computers changed corporate computing because people could input data easily and crunch numbers. But to share information, they had to pass disks around. The move to a client-server architecture helped, but led to what many called "islands of automation." Individuals within a department, such as accounting, could share information, but accounting couldn't get information about what was going on in receiving or human resources.

During most of the 1990s, most large and many mid-size companies began deploying enterprise resource planning software. ERP was an extension of manufacturing resource planning and was designed to help companies manage most administrative activities, such as product planning, parts purchasing, inventory management, interacting with suppliers, providing customer service, and tracking orders.

ERP linked many internal departments, so employees could share data within the company. That was a huge advance over client-server systems, but companies needed to share information with suppliers, so a new market segment called supply chain management (SCM) emerged. Another problem was providing information to sales reps in the field or in call centers. So along came vendors offering a set of applications broadly grouped under the term customer relationship management (CRM), which both provide information from ERP systems and help manage relationships in an organized way.

The aim of these complex software systems is to break down the barriers that existed between different departments within a company as well as the barriers between a company and its suppliers and a company and its customers. But many companies still rely on legacy systems and equipment, as well as custom software. So a group of companies sprang up to try to knit all these software systems together. The IT industry generally groups them under the umbrella term enterprise application integration (EAI).

The term EAI covers plans, methods, and tools aimed at modernizing, consolidating, and coordinating the computer applications in an enterprise. Companies typically turn to an EAI vendor when they have existing legacy devices, applications and databases that they want to continue to use while adding or migrating to a new set of devices and applications that exploit the Internet and "near-real-time" data collection and device monitoring technologies. EAI often involves developing a new "total view" of an enterprise's business and its applications. The aim is to understand how existing applications fit into the new view, and then to devise ways to efficiently reuse what already exists while adding new applications and data.

EAI encompasses methodologies such as object-oriented programming, distributed, cross-platform program communication using message brokers with Common Object Request Broker Architectures, the modification of ERP applications to fit new objectives, enterprise-wide content and data distribution using common databases, and data standards implemented with the Extensible Markup Language (XML), middleware, message queuing, and other approaches. Java and SOAP are also key tools in achieving EAI.

It made sense to focus on sharing data before collecting data because there obviously is no point in gathering huge amounts of data if there is no way to analyze it and move it around the company. So now that companies are nearing this goal of a totally integrated IT system -- a central corporate nervous system and brain, if you will -- it makes sense to begin focusing on how to get better information, and that is why RFID has suddenly become a hot topic.

Companies have, of course, been using a variety of methods for collecting data. Bar codes have been used for years to get data into computers. But bar codes require people scan them, and people often forget to scan a label, or scan the wrong item, which leads to bad information in the system. What companies now want, in a sense, is to extend the central nervous system by adding eyes and ears and fingers to the sense exactly what's going on in the world.

RFID offers a way to gather real-time data without human intervention. RFID may eventually be combined with video, motion, light, temperature and other sensors to give companies the complete view of the world they are operating in. Sometimes these systems will acquire data that needs to be acted on quickly at the local level and sometimes it will need to be fed through the nervous system to the central brain that reacts in a more sophisticated way.

Companies clearly need ways to aggregate data at the local level, act on some information at that level, and then decide on how and when to pass data up to higher level systems. This, perhaps, more than anything else is the greatest challenge facing IT departments as companies adopt RFID systems. The products described in the main article (see RFID to ERP: The Land Between ) offer some help in being to create intelligent networks. No doubt the connectivity layer will eventually incorporate its own intelligence and will become more sophisticated as RFID becomes widely adopted. --Eric Ipsen
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