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Sun, HP Riding Herd on RFID

Sun Microsystems and HP are looking for partners in their quest to grab more market share in the emerging RFID market.

Sun is planning to announce that it's created reference architectures for small, medium and large implementations, executives from the company told internetnews.com. The goal is to make it easier for customers and integrators to get up to speed.

As part of its increased commitment, Sun has amped up partner offerings for RFID, introduced a compliance testing service and began shipping a warehouse management offering.

HP announced closer collaboration with professional services firm BearingPoint and a consolidated offering for industry verticals.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology automates and extends the gathering of information such as is found on bar codes. While a person must point a bar code reader directly at individual barcodes, RFID tags automatically communicate a unique numeric code when they pass within a few meters of a reader. Middleware immediately sends that information to a database, where it's available for use by enterprise information systems.

Sun's reference architectures will let customers benefit from Sun's previous engagements, said Julie Sarbacker, director of the RFID business unit at Sun. "We're capturing the methodologies for how these engagements are delivered so we can reuse it," she said. "We're not taking the approach of, 'Throw us money, and we'll make this work for you.' We're taking a productized approach, so customers can benefit from our experience with quicker and lower cost."

Sun has launched an RFID-specific offering in order to give partners access to its iForce program technical and marketing resources. Independent hardware and software vendors and systems integrators in the program can make use of the Sun Java System RFID Software Toolkit to build their own adapters for the wide variety of hardware that Sun expects to come on the market.

Device adapters let RFID readers communicate with Sun's Java System RFID Software. Sun said the toolkit, which leverages the NetBeans, has the potential to reduce development time for RFID adapters by more than 50 percent.

"We have adapters for the major manufacturers of readers and printers. There will be a lot more hardware manufacturers coming to market with new products," said Sarbacker. "This way, [partners] won't get bottleneck waiting for us to build the adapters; they can do it themselves."

Participants in the iForce RFID program also will be able to access news, documentation and software downloads from the partner site. Theyll be able to work with Sun on customer pilots at Sun RFID Test Centers.

Sun also announced a retail compliance program to help manufacturers deal with the > various tagging mandates from customers such as Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense.

"A lot of manufacturers faced with mandates from different retailers are having some difficulties complying," Sarbacker said. Wal-Mart's mandate for 100 percent accuracy in reading the tags is especially onerous, she said. Sun has duplicated the specific requirements of major retailers at its Dallas test center, so that manufacturers can test how to make sure their particular products, packaging and shipping methods comply with their customers' requirements.

"We'll do an analysis and tell them which are the best tags and readers to use, given their portfolio of products and their own facilities," she said. "We want to take it beyond that and make sure they look at their whole architecture and data management, so they can have the information to make better business decisions."

Finally, Sun delivered a warehouse management product with long-time partners SIS Technologies, a vendor of infrastructure, technical support and services, and SSA Global, which provides enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.

Paul Milo, ERP segment manager for Sun's market and industries development group, said the SSA software was easy to drop into Sun's framework, enabling ERP systems to take advantage of the RFID data.

"From the crate, the label and all the transactions and inventory you'd normally do manually are done in an automated version, with all the security and scalability and tracking built into the system," he said.

On Monday, HP and OATSystems rolled out RFID/IS (Industrial Strength), a combination of an RFID framework, systems management, and consulting and integration services. RFID/IS includes HP OpenView management software, HP Services, and hardware from servers to storage to printers. The offering is based on HP's internal supply chain automation efforts.

HP Labs began experimenting with sensing technologies such as RFID a few years ago, said Frank Lanza, worldwide RFID director for HP Services, and it began a pilot project within its own operations. HP and OAT -- along with other vendors --deployed RFID at multiple locations across HPs global supply chain. OAT's Foundation Suite middleware enables the translation and cleansing of data between RFID readers and database or ERP systems.

"Along the way, we got the [retailer] mandates that said they'd like us to start tagging our goods. That's how we ended up with a leg up," Lanza said. In fact, HP became one of the first eight Wal-Mart suppliers to comply with the super-retailer's RFID mandate.

RFID/IS is targeted towards automotive, consumer packaged goods, pharmaceutical, consumer electronics, retail and high-tech customers. Such verticalization is part of the next wave of RFID, according to ABI Research. According to ABI, manufacturers are moving from simple slap-and-ship tactics to please customers. The focus has shifted to how they can use RFID to benefit their own operations. But they'll need domain expertise from their vendors and consultants

Lanza said that HP didnt want to develop new domain expertise for the retailing sector. Instead, the company announced an extended partnership with IT consulting firm BearingPoint.

"We decided we didn't want to focus in on the business process side of retailing," Lanza said. "RFID is a great add-on to some f those service, so we wanted to partner."

HP will continue to provide RFID technology up to implementation integration, while BearingPoint will handle the supply chain work. While the two companies have worked together for a long time, Lanza said that the effort to sell into the retail sector as a team is new.

John Cummings, BearingPoint managing director, said, "We do mostly the strategy and process work and systems integration. HP is mainly focused on the infrastructure and hardware side of the equation. We've combined forces to make the best of both worlds."

Cummings said the two companies will go to market together, each taking the lead when appropriate. They'll also cooperate on creating new offerings, not only specific to RFID, "but also enabling the supply chain so it performs better."