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IBM Pushes RFID to the Edge

As promised, IBM's newest software division has released WebSphere-based middleware to improve the supply chain management (SCM) of RFID information.

The three WebSphere RFID products -- Premises Server, Device Infrastructure and Remote Server for Retail -- were scheduled for a late-2004 release by the Armonk, N.Y., giant as part of its $250 million investment in the successor to bar code technology.

The Sensor and Actuator Solutions division was formed in late September to focus more on the RFID technology that has brought the company more than $2.6 billion in revenues last year. According to officials at the time, software coming out of the new group and sold through IBM's Software Group is based on tools created in the past by IBM's services group for individual clients.

IBM believes the more processing power placed on the edge of the RFID process flow, the better. With devices that can collect RFID information at the edge of the network as well as process it, businesses will benefit from instant information on products entering and leaving the building.

"What we've tried to do was really move some of the computing power as far to the edge of the network as possible, so we've enabled the RFID readers into technology-enabled smart readers -- readers that can do more than just read a tag," said Ann Breidenbach, IBM Sensors and Actuator Solutions division director of strategy.

At the extreme edge is the Device Infrastructure, an application based on IBM's Workplace Client Technology Micro Edition, which in turn uses the Java 2, Mobile Edition (J2ME) programming language. It features an embedded database, which helps give these "smart" RFID readers the capability to filter and aggregate data at the source.

The data collected can then be integrated with IBM's Premises Server, a middleware product that collects data from devices throughout the building and gives the store or distribution center an immediate real-time look at what how much of a certain product, or products, is there. The information can then be sent on up the enterprise IT chain.

The third product, Remote Server for Retail, is a middleware component that links the on-floors systems within a retail building -- kiosks, checkout registers and other point-of-sale (POS) systems, as well as RFID readers -- to deliver a more complete picture of what's selling and what isn't at any given time.

"So, you might want to find out how much of a product you're selling, or if you're doing a promotion, that the promotion is really working," Breidenbach said. "To find all that out, you need an infrastructure that can run those applications that tell you that and you need an infrastructure that can give the applications all the data about what products have passed through the supply chain."

Both the Premises Server and Remote Server for Retail are based on Java 2, Enterprise Edition (J2EE) and include a copy of WebSphere Application Server, DB2 Universal Database, WebSphere MQ Series and Tivoli Systems Management middleware for remote management. Licensing for Premises Server lists at $5,750 per processor and Remote Server is similarly priced. IBM wouldn't divulge pricing on Device Infrastructure but said cost was based on volume.

Breidenbach believes the remote management capabilities are a necessity for devices and companies that put more processing capabilities outside the realm of the corporate IT staff. Individual retail stores generally don't come with their own IT departments, so remote management needs to be part of their middleware package.

"If you can remotely manage it, you have a big adventage," she said. "You don't have to ship your IT staff out to 250 stores to implement software, they can do it all from one location."