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IBM Takes on Flood of RFID Data

Many large businesses are already awash in a flood of RFID data, much of it too poorly integrated and barely managed.

IBM says its WebSphere Product Center is a link to help filter the flood of RFID data heading into enterprise systems. On Monday, it launched a new version of the product management middleware it acquired along with its creator, Trigo Technologies, in April.

A single product might have as many as 400 attributes, according to IBM, including physical specs such as from color, weight, size, date harvested, point of origin and date shipped, as well as associated data including promotions, ads and images. Multiply those 400 attributes by the 300,000 or so items in a large supermarket, then multiply that number by the 3,000 stores in a national chain, and you've got a huge number of attributes to track.

"When everything is tagged, everything has an IP address, and there are sensors all over, the number of endpoints goes through the roof, and so does the amount of data," said John Rymer, an analyst with Forrester Research. "The number of possible end points either consuming or creating information will rise by several orders of magnitude."

That's where WebSphere Product Center comes in. The management tool sits on top of an Oracle database and links product-related information with terms of trade, such as pricing, and synchronizes the information with other enterprise systems. It lets the business share the information with internal users and external customers, manufacturers, and suppliers.

"Product lifecycle management handles building products. We're all about how you bring them to market," said Daniel Druker, former vice president of marketing for Trigo and head of marketing for WebSphere Product Center.

"Today, it's human middleware -- people picking up the phone or faxing," he said. "Now, we offer a standards-based electronic way of exchanging information over the Internet." Product Center combines the "track and trace" data from RFID implementations in the supply chain with internal information generated by the enterprise, Druker said, "linking electronic product code data with what they already know."

He said manufacturers will see a return on the investment through greater visibility into sales. "Today, they can't tell when their products hit the shelf, so there's no visibility into sales."

Druker said this is the first enterprise application to handle post-manufacture product management. IBM partner SAP offers Master Data Management, an application within the NetWeaver platform that promises to integrate data and content from separate enterprise systems.

Druker said scalability is a key feature of Product Center. The software is already in use by two huge customers, manufacturer Unilever and European retailing giant Carrefour.

According to Forrester's Rymer, who had not yet been briefed on the WebSphere product, the industry will need middleware that can scale to handle the flood of data from RFID, plus different techniques to organize and adapt to this environment.

When every item is connected to the corporate database, Rymer said, "We're talking about going way past what the current middleware can handle."

All these end-points will sit in a service-oriented architecture that lets them interact in hierarchies of executable applications, a futuristic structure Rymer likes to call the "X-Internet."

"My enterprise infrastructure now is primarily built to manage transactions, operational data. This rich data we're talking about [from the X-Internet] is about behavior, context, location, conditions that might affect the product in transit." This data is contextual, he said, and it can be used to make decisions about a variety of business operations. "But we're not very expert at using this," he said. "You have potentially an enormous amount of data coming in every minute. How do you filter it, how do you decide what it means?"

Luckily, Rymer said, this next big thing -- along with its opportunities and challenges -- is a few years down the road. "Companies do have time to sort this out."