RFID tags could help manage data centre assets

Data centre staff are typically not employed to maintain inventories of hardware assets, yet accounting for hardware, and the valuable data they house, is essential to ensuring regulatory compliance among other things, according to a technology research firm.

The use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology by IT managers to manage their data centre assets, like servers and routers, is gaining adoption, said Jonathan Collins, U.K-based principal analyst with the RFID & contactless group at ABI Research.

Maintaining inventories of data centre hardware is often a manual, long-winded task that can result in inaccuracies, said Collins. “There’s a manpower cost there,” he said. “They need to walk around and check these things, and enter this in the database.”

With RFID technology, Collins said employees could simply walk around the data centre with handheld RFID readers and determine what’s present and what’s missing. But while eliminating a manual process is a savings on employee time that could be best applied elsewhere, Collins said RFID technology can also ensure inventory accuracy, which is a point of sensitivity for certain industries like financial services that need to ensure certain audit capabilities of their IT infrastructure. “If a bank can’t find one of its servers, there are regulatory obligations around being able to retrieve that data,” he said.

Regulatory compliance aside, IT managers who lease hardware would benefit from the accuracy of RFID-driven asset management, said Collins, because they can trim costs by better identitying which equipment is actually being used and which is lying around gathering dust.

According to ABI Research, IT asset tracking may only currently encompass a mere fraction of a per cent of the worldwide RFID asset tracking market, but that figure will grow to more than 10 per cent by the end of 2013.

IT managers can use passive or active RFID technology to implement RFID asset tracking in their data centre. With passive RFID, for instance, staff can use handheld readers to read tags placed on hardware that needs to be tracked. Also, readers can be placed above entrances leading from the data centre so that hardware leaving the premises can be identified. Introducing RFID in the data centre is certainly “relatively easy compared to a retail supply chain” where a heavier reader infrastructure is required, said Collins.

The cost of passive and active RFID tags is about $1.50 and $10 each, respectively.

“Compared to the sum spent on the hardware itself and the data sitting on it,” said Collins, “there’s quite a good chance of ROI in a year and even 18 months.”

An IT managers’ ability to get approval from the business to implement RFID asset tracking will depend on the individual organization, said Collins, but he added that it’s easy to comprehend the technology and its myriad applications beyond traditional uses like fleet management and retail.

But another factor driving the RFID data centre asset management market, said Collins, is the emergence of tags designed to sit on the metal casings of blade servers because typically metal can interfere with radio waves.

The industry is certainly warming to the idea of RFID for data centre asset management, said Collins, citing industry groups like the New York-based Financial Services Technology Consortium (FSTC) that is showing interest in the technology for financial institutions. The FSTC declined to comment.

And data centre hardware vendors, too, like Hewlett Packard Co. and IBM Corp. have been selling hardware with integrated RFID tags. Just this summer, HP announced a service called HP Factory Express RFID Service to help customers track data centre assets throughout their lifecycle.

According to HP’s chief technology officer, Victor Garcia, the company is focused on creating an automated and “trusted” data centre that provides dynamic access to computing resources. But a trusted data centre requires security mechanisms and infrastructure and performance management, said Garcia, “and you cannot have people doing that because people are always the weakest link. Automation becomes essential in data centres.”

That’s where RFID comes into play. IT managers, said Garcia, can now ask, “So how many servers do I actually have and where are they?”

HP offers different RFID systems including movable and built-in sensors.

Garcia said he’s observing plenty of interest in RFID data centre asset tracking, in different sectors including financial, large retail, and public – but basically, any organization with a large data centre to manage.

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