June 2006 | How-To | Ten Tips

Selecting RFID Middleware

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Middleware for RFID applications sits between the RFID reader and conventional middleware, facilitating communication between enterprise systems and automatic identification devices. Some RFID middleware includes full track-and-trace reporting, device and network diagnostics utilities, and an open development platform, while other solutions focus solely on data consolidation and translation. How do you choose the RFID middleware that's right for you? Here are 10 tips from Damon Bramble, general manager of the RFID Solutions Center, a division of Alien Technology Corporation, Morgan Hill, Calif.

1. Know what you are buying, and carefully examine what you need. A managed supply chain information system captures, filters, analyzes, and acts upon data. You need to understand all the system's components, and how middleware fits. Buying a complete RFID system may allow you to incorporate the technology into your operations without integrating deeply into your ERP system. But purchasing a minimal RFID system may provide easier integration into back-end systems, low total cost of ownership, and enhanced scalability and fault tolerance.

2. Do your homework. Before purchasing middleware, investigate available vendors—determine which ones are pursuing specific vertical industries and what solutions they support. Check out trade journals, RFID solutions centers, industry events and trade shows, and RFID education programs. Talk to peers who have successfully implemented RFID middleware.

3. Put together an internal team. Your RFID implementation team should consist of representatives from the technology, operations, customer service, and finance/business process departments. An optimal selection team consists of a buyer; a specialist in integrating RFID with back-end systems; an IT network administrator; a specialist in integrating automatic identification devices on the plant floor; a business analyst; a program manager for middleware implementation; and your RFID program's technology leader.

4. Build a plan. Start with a vision of where you want RFID to take you, and a decision tree that leads you there. This high-level plan needs to present an integrated and balanced view of risks, costs, benefits, staffing, and any other factors that affect your business, so you can objectively make decisions. An IT plan can aid your decision process by spotting potential problems before they occur and planning investments wisely. Follow up with a short-term plan defining exactly what you want to accomplish—including milestones, metrics, and success criteria.

5. Meet the vendor's whole team. Just because a middleware vendor tells you that a differentiator is important, or professes incredible competence, does not mean you have found your provider. Meeting the team who will provide business/relationship management, technical strategy, implementation, and support is key to installing a successful system.

6. Send out Requests for Proposals. RFPs are efficient tools for capturing the current and future capabilities of RFID middleware vendors. Don't rely solely on what someone else tells you about a vendor's capabilities; get it from the vendors themselves.

7. Make sure the middleware provider offers excellent service. RFID is still in the early phases of adoption, so don't expect to buy off-the-shelf products that need little support. When a problem occurs, you need to know who will own it—the systems integrator, device manufacturer, middleware provider, or someone else. Does your prospective middleware provider have the expertise to help you align your business processes with RFID data? Ideally, you want to select a vendor that is committed to implementing a middleware solution that meets your budget and schedule requirements.

8. Dig deep to find out what features are available. Aside from price and other common questions, ask your potential RFID middleware provider how easy it will be to integrate with your back-end systems. Also ask if its pre-built business processes align with yours, or if you'll need custom development. What is the provider's short- and long-term vision? How much time will your IT staff need to implement and maintain this system? What fault tolerance steps has the vendor taken, and how will they ensure uptime for both your software systems and RFID devices? Does the middleware provider take advantage of "smart" devices—such as lightstacks and presence detectors—that can reduce infrastructure costs and network traffic? Or does the vendor implement with additional control systems?

9. Get references. Working with a middleware provider that has a good track record allows you to overcome hurdles that can be costly to your business. Among other features, experienced middleware companies have quality processes for managing device driver release schedules, and the capability to automatically alert system administrators to potential problems. They also may have integrated devices with the flexibility to allow for configuration, which optimizes performance.

10. Make the right decision for you. Once you have gathered enough information to begin the middleware selection and purchase process, it is important to define and prioritize metrics that affect your business. Do not simply use a similar company's scorecard. Doing the latter will deliver a pilot, doing the former will deliver value.

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