IBM, its partners and some big-name users are piloting unannounced additions to the WebSphere product lineup. One set of future components will be tailored to RFID across government, industrial and retail applications. Another will be fine-tuned for use in the retail supply chain, either with or without RFID. Meanwhile, middleware competitors Microsoft and Oracle are piloting RFID-adapted middleware of their own.
Essentially, IBM wants to leverage WebSphere as a platform flexible enough to integrate POS (point of sale) and wireless data while also allowing a wide choice of third-party applications, back-end operating environments and front-end interfaces, said Steve Valentine, a retail consulting executive at IBM.
IBM is using the pilots to help develop new extensions to products in IBMs DB2 Universal Database, Tivoli, Lotus and Rational lineups that meet the needs of embedded environments, according to Janet Jackman, an IBM executive who is close to both projects.
For example, one component under development is a DB2 extension thats light enough to run on POS cash registers and PDAs. The light database will feature capabilities for asynchronous, or store-and-forward, communications as well as the ability to work offline, Jackman said.
Also under way is a Tivoli-based module geared toward ease of use, for stores and other places where skilled professional systems administrators are not on hand.
Like earlier IBM projects around technical areas such as Linux and life sciences, the RFID and retail supply chain pilot programs spring from an internal IBM incubation program called EBO (Emerging Business Opportunities). Headed by Jackman, the retail-only pilot program is dubbed Retail OnDemand.
On the other hand, the new RFID pilot program is part of a three-month-old EBO project called Sensors and Actuators.
“The meat industry is one of the government applications Sensors and Actuators is looking at for RFID,” Jackman said. Due to concerns over mad cow disease, federal governments in some European countries are mandating that food establishments trace beef products through the food supply “from the herd to the fork,” according to Jackman.
The Retail OnDemand pilot is using IBMs emerging, WebSphere-based Store Integration Framework, Jackman said. The framework is being piloted by a number of retailers, but Pepboys Auto, Circuit City and Metro are the only ones that have decided to go ahead with full-scale, storewide implementations.
Metro is the sole customer to be taking part in both the Retail OnDemand and RFID pilots. The retail chain, based in the United Kingdom, is working with Active Decisions BI (business intelligence) application to provide guided self-service at kiosks. And Metro is using other software to spur interactivity with customers through RFID.
Other IBM customers in the Retail OnDemand program, such as Circuit City and Pepboys, dont have immediate plans to test RFID.
Like IBM, though, Microsoft and Oracle are starting to pilot RFID with certain users. DHL, one of Oracles pilot customers, wants to see how RFID can improve customer service and ROI (return on investment), according to materials posted on Oracles Web site. Oracle is adding RFID functionality to its database, as well as to its application server and enterprise application suite.
Oracles emerging RFID capabilities are part of a larger family of Sensor-Based Services that also includes bar-code, proximity and temperature-sensing technologies. “But the promise of RFID is to capture and automate data higher in the supply chain,” an Oracle representative said.
Microsofts pilot customers for RFID include Danish snack-food maker Kims, according to a Microsoft representative. Microsoft wants to develop RFID-specific capabilities such as data filtering and reader management for middleware such as BizTalk and SQL Server.
Microsofts partners in customer pilots will include RFID implementation specialists such as Manhattan Associates and GlobeRanger, Sharyn Leaver, an analyst at Forrester Research, said in an interview with eWEEK.com.
In the IBM retail trials, Circuit City will start piloting the Store Integration Framework by March 1, 2005, with full-scale deployment likely to follow by March 1, 2006, said Mike Jones, Circuit Citys CIO.
“Itd be ideal for us to start piloting in one store, and then take it out to a single region, before doing the full rollout,” Jones said in an interview with eWEEK.com.
IBM Global Services (IGS) will help Circuit City to integrate an existing Java-based retail supply chain solution from Commerce 360; a service order application from Yantra; and two different front ends: Windows XP Embedded, now in use at about 100 of Circuit Citys 600 stores, and IBMs new IRES (Integrated Retail Embedded SuSE) Linux.
The Pepboys pilot will start next month, Jackman said. Unlike Circuit City, Pepboys will run IBMs AIX on the back end and embedded Linux at the POS. The auto-parts supply and services company has opted to write its own ordering software.