RFID: Overcoming the challenges

RFID promises a sea change - but what are the challenges facing this new technology?

In "The Prince," the savvy politician Machiavelli asserted that "there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

That 16th century admonition should serve as warning to those who espouse the advancement of radio frequency identification or RFID. The swirling hype, promises of opportunity and mandates for change have created a maelstrom of uncertainty. While the implementation of RFID holds considerable potential, realising the benefits requires addressing three key challenges head on:

RFID-forced business process changes
For many industries, RFID promises nothing short of a fundamental transformation of the cost structure associated with tracking items. But such great promise carries challenges. First, and foremost, is the need to change business processes that RFID deployments will prompt. For example, McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas has begun a $125m project to RFID-enable its baggage-tracking system with a goal of reducing baggage mishandling by 15-30 percent. Given that it costs more than $100 to route a lost bag, the potential savings on the 70,000 bags McCarran handles daily could be significant.

Though the benefits are obvious, exactly how they can be achieved -- given the existing infrastructure and its manual business processes -- remains unclear. What kind of new applications will be required to run RFID-enabled "human-free" bag routing? How many people will be required for error detection, and who will install, maintain, and operate the RFID-enabled systems? And what kind of networking infrastructure will be required?

In effect, McCarran must resolve what an RFID-enabled airport will actually look like. Though perhaps a daunting challenge, changing business processes to accommodate the potential inherent in RFID is mandatory. Though the technology is fascinating, changing physical assets, people and processes are a daunting task. After all, buildings, people and processes can be tough, and expensive, to change.

Data volumes of a new scale
Data is precious, but be careful what you wish for. With in-store deployment, it is predicted that Wal-Mart will generate more than seven terabytes of operational RFID data a day. Traditional technology architectures are not prepared to handle this volume. Supply chain traceability, auditing and real-time tracking will drive the need to store much of this operational data, yet traditional databases designed to store transactional data will never handle the load.

The old adage that states "Nobody's operational data store is clean" must now be challenged in order for RFID to succeed. The very value the technology affords depends on having valid, real-time visibility to RFID data. Software architectures require an overhaul to deal with the influx of RFID data. To resolve this, retailers should look to operational databases, which differ from traditional back-end databases, yet are far less understood. However, they will become more commonplace and necessary for the collection, correlation, filtering, and cleansing of RFID data.

Standardisation watch
Lastly, RFID standards, both industry and de facto, have yet to mature. Rapid changes can be expected, as exemplified by the recent transformation of the AutoID Center turning into a joint initiative of UCC and EAN. Early adopters of RFID must choose those elements of the RFID standards that have practical value to their deployments, rather than push the proverbial envelope. Rather than leap ahead of emerging standards, it would be best to plan for the certain changes in business process and data volume that any deployment will generate.

The hype around RFID is based on the belief that real-time, automated asset tracking is the only way companies can dramatically improve the efficiency of their operations. Changes in business process, technology, and standardization are, as Machiavelli once said, a "perilous and uncertain" business. But they have the most dramatic pay-offs, as well.

RFID promises a sea change in the way we buy, distribute, track, and secure the assets of the world. Proceeding ahead makes a lot of sense, but doing so with an eye on the challenges that may ensue will better ensure that the journey is successful.

Mark Palmer has 15 years of experience in the operational data management and middleware industry as a chief technology officer at YouthStream Media Networks and director of product strategy at IONA Technologies. He is currently RFID technical evangelist with ObjectStore, a division of Progress Software. Email at mpalmer@progress.com.