HP is testing RFID technology for tracking computers and disc drives inside data centers at Midwest retail and grocery store chain Meijer.

Aaron Ricadela, Contributor

October 16, 2006

3 Min Read

RFID technology has made inroads in business and IT for its ease of tracking trucks, trains, and pallets of goods as they move from suppliers to sellers. But one place radio frequency identification tags and the computer systems that manage them have been notably absent is inside IT departments' own computer rooms.

Now, researchers from Hewlett-Packard say they've completed a three-month test of RFID technology for tracking computers and disc drives inside data centers at Midwest retail and grocery store chain Meijer Inc. The test could pave the way for systems that use RFID to keep track of hundreds or thousands of pieces of computer equipment with greater accuracy than traditional methods. The researchers will discuss their system, and the Meijer test, at an RFID conference in Los Angeles Tuesday.

Meijer, which has 176 stores in five states, last month finished testing a prototype system from HP that combines off-the-shelf RFID tags affixed to servers, with specially designed readers that sit inside the door of a server rack's cabinet, and custom-designed software that can alert IT managers within seconds when a server changes location. The software can also track computer equipment's whereabouts over time. That's important in data centers where computers are constantly being moved and re-booted.

Meijer's IT department uses an 11-page Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to log the location, IP addresses, and other technical information on some 800 servers in its Grand Rapids, Mich., data center, a method that's about 95% accurate, says Tim Osbeck, an IT manager at the company. During the test with HP, Osbeck's group tracked information about 120 servers affixed with passive RFID tags and hooked to HP's tracking system.

The approach could reduce errors, he says. "Like any good retailer, we're certainly looking at what RFID can do," says Osbeck. Meijer currently uses RFID technology to track the locations of its trucks, and accepts RFID-enabled payment cards at some of its stores.

HP's system, if commercialized, could make it easier to perform software upgrades on Meijer's servers, manage the weekly addition or removal of computers, and pinpoint the location of the secure servers that process credit- and debit-card payments, adds Osbeck. "You have all your server information at the click of a mouse," he says.

RFID systems work by labeling vehicles or objects with tags, or microchips with attached antennae that create a magnetic field and can transmit data stored on the chip. RFID readers communicate with the tags using radio waves, passing the information from them to back-end computer systems where it can be stored and analyzed.

HP hopes to commercialize its data-center RFID system in a way that adds just a few percent to the price of a rack of servers, says HP Labs project manager Cyril Brignone. To make the system work, he says the researchers designed a special reader than can overcome the magnetic fields generated in corporate computer rooms and compensate for the interference caused by packing numerous tags in a relatively small area.

HP is testing the system itself on 420 servers in a data center at its Palo Alto, Calif. headquarters. HP CIO Randy Mott has been undertaking initiatives that can reduce IT labor costs at the company.

According to Meijer's Osbeck, any commercial product resulting from the research would have to be low in cost. "If it's $100,000, we're probably not interested," he says. "If it's $5,000, then there's real value there."

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