RFID Architecture: Computing on the Edge
As companies deploy RFID technology, their enterprise architectures will become more distributed, says Sanjay Sarma, co-founder of the Auto-ID Centre at MIT, the consortium developing the infrastructure to enable supply chain applications of RFID technology. Rather than using a data centre at corporate headquarters to aggregate and process the avalanche of data that will be generated by items, cartons and cases being read throughout supply chains, that work will be done at the edges of the corporate network - on store shelves, at the point of sale, at loading docks and on forklifts. Sarma calls this distribution of intelligence and computing across a wider network "edge computing". The distributed architecture, he says, will help companies manage the data glut.
"If you take all that data [from RFID] and supply it to the home office, bandwidth explodes," says Sarma. "But if you distribute it outward, you reduce the bandwidth you need back to the home office. You reduce computing in the home office, and you make things [operate] much faster."
Part of this architecture - and the key to enabling RFID applications for retailers and manufacturers - are two technologies that Auto-ID, a partnership between nearly 100 global companies and five research universities, is developing: Savant and object name service (ONS). RFID readers will be wired into a computer system running Savant, an application that manages all the data going in and out of readers. The ONS matches the EPC to the address of a server, which contains information about the product. By calling up an IP address, the ONS essentially tells you what the EPC means, working in a similar manner to the way Web pages are called up on the Internet.
Sarma doesn't think the move toward edge computing will require CIOs to rethink their IT architectures fundamentally. He says CIOs simply will have to invest in more localized computing systems. "Done right, this may not change the central infrastructure. You may create more intelligence at the edges of the network, which will make operations more efficient," he adds.
And that's the driving force behind RFID: to decrease retailers' costs and increase their margins by keeping better track of inventory and enhancing service to customers.
SIDEBAR: The Wal-Mart Factor
When Wal-Mart says it wants RFID tagging, who's going to argue?
In the US, Wal-Mart's Svengali-like influence over the retail industry can't be underestimated and shouldn't come as a surprise, considering the company's size and the volume of its business. "One in five retail transactions in America is conducted at a Wal-Mart. Their supply chain touches 17 per cent of the US GDP and approximately 11 per cent of the global GDP," says John Parkinson, chief technologist for Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.
Parkinson compares Wal-Mart to an anchor tenant in a shopping mall, but the mall in this case is the whole world. When Wal-Mart speaks, everyone listens. Now, the discounter is asking its top 100 suppliers to put RFID tags on the pallets and cases of goods they ship to Wal-Mart - and to do so by January 2005.
"They're able to cut through a lot of what would otherwise take forever to agree on and say: 'Do it this way'," says Parkinson.
And most observers believe that's exactly the way it will be done.
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