Getting Ready for RFID

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2004-04-05

Getting Ready for RFID

Attention, Wal-Mart shoppers: If the quantity of data that eventually pours out of RFID technology is half as voluminous as the recent spate of vendor announcements and their concurrent hot-air hype, every DBA in the land should take cover.

To wit: As Renee Ferguson reported Monday in her story "Taking on RFID Challenge," TIBCO, WebMethods, Oracle and Microsoft all are hammering away at IT infrastructures to soak up the massive amounts of data expected to be generated by RFID deployments. Last month, CeBIT was RFID happyland as announcements proliferated.

Sun last week gave a sneak peek at its RFID technology, and Oracle simultaneously unveiled its middleware RFID technology.

Granted, there are still plenty of questions about the potential ROI of RFID. As Larry Dignan wrote in "Baseline," one of eWEEKs sister publications, the tags remain expensive, as they hover above the goal of 5 cents. Not only that, Dignan noted, there simply arent many vendors producing tags that will suit the likes of mandate-setting Wal-Mart, and its unclear whether the ones who are—Intermec, Alien Technology and Matrics—can do so in the quantity needed to get the per-tag cost down to where everybody thinks it should be.

Putting aside both the hype and the questions about ROI, one thing is certain: A good number of DBAs have to get ready to handle an RFID-generated onslaught of data. Estimates put that outflow at anywhere from 10 times to 100 times the data now being generated from similar bar-code applications.

Ouch. No wonder Oracle, with its 10g clustering message, is salivating. If I had a technology road map whose future was based on a solution for massive scaling needs, Id be cheerful about those estimates, too. At any rate, here are some things to keep in mind if youre working in an environment where RFID may be looming:

Prepare yourself for much, much larger amounts of data. You might think you currently have the right amount of employees, databases, storage and data-warehousing. If your firm is considering RFID, rethink all of those components.

Next page: Know and love your BI tools.

Know your BI

Know and love your BI tools. Allyson Fryhoff, vice president of Oracles Sensor-Based Services, pointed out to me that once customers get past understanding what readers, tags and printers they can use, the need to understand and analyze the information they have becomes very important. Pre-RFID, DBAs may not have been up on BI, since they havent had that much data from which reports must be generated. RFID will present a whole new world of data that hasnt had reports associated with it before, so make sure you know whos going to deal with it and how.

Check out events-based computing. Oracles Jacob Christfort, vice president and chief technology officer of Server Technologies, advises DBAs who are getting up to speed on RFID to take a look at queuing systems, formerly called Oracle Streams. Check out the Oracle Technology Network for some sample code and a primer on this technology, which enables propagation and management of data, transactions and events in a data stream, either from within a database or between databases.

Many DBAs probably dont use events-based computing nowadays, but they should expect future RFID-concerned applications to employ the technology, Christfort told me.

Also, check out Flashback queries. Flashback queries were introduced in Oracle9i and enable DBAs to perform queries against log data. Instead of having to roll a database back to last week to query the state of the database in that time frame—a very laborious process—DBAs can instead query the log without rolling back. Thats potentially very useful, since it can help you to reduce the amount of data kept in current and archived tables.

In a traditional database, youd have to keep all of the data in large tables, which is extraordinarily data-intensive. With Flashback queries, you can push things that you dont query often into an archive. You dont lose the ability to go back and query that data, since you can do so in flashback queries.

Next page: Weigh in on the consumer-privacy issues.

Weigh In on Consumer

Privacy"> Voice your opinions on consumer privacy. Its legitimate to have concerns about consumer data privacy. As Gartners Jeff Woods described to me, RFID represents the architecture for the future of global commerce. It sounds grandiose, but there you have it. And when youre building that kind of foundational architecture, its legitimate to ask if youre building the kind of future anybody would want to live in. Remember in "Minority Report," when Tom Cruises character walked into a store? The screens overhead began to flash customized ads as the character was recognized.

Thats the type of sharply targeted marketing that scares consumers. Moreover, at this point, consumers have no idea whats in it for them when it comes to RFID. Retail giants such as Wal-Mart, along with technology suppliers including Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Sun and Oracle, talk about the mountains of money to be saved in streamlining supply chains.

Nobodys arguing that the technology will improve inventory tracking and speed up merchandise routing and loading, but consumers couldnt care less about saving Wal-Mart $8 billion. What moves consumers, rather, is the idea of RFID applied in a way thats genuinely helpful to them, such as the ability to call your refrigerator from the supermarket to ask it if you need milk.

Its all in how the questions are phrased. Gartner has done surveys wherein consumers were asked whether they wanted RFID to invade their privacy. Of course, the answer has been no. But when the questioner acknowledges that there are consumer benefits involved, the answers get much more positive.

In the meantime, theres no need to overreact. After all, there are ways to safeguard data, and theres still time to voice your opinion on how data should be used. About 100 companies are working out the hows, whats and wheres with EPCglobal, a nonprofit organization thats driving the global, multi-industry adoption and implementation of a network for the Electronic Product Code (a number for uniquely identifying an item). The body has also taken over standards development and administration since the Auto-ID Center closed in October and transferred its technology to the group.

EPCglobal is the one to go to if youve got concerns about the future of RFID. Meanwhile, if youve got database concerns with your ongoing implementation of RFID, let me know—Im all non-radio-frequency-enabled ears.

Write to Lisa Vaas at Database Center Editor Lisa Vaas has written about enterprise applications since 1997.

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