RFID Tags Enable Accurate and Secure IT Asset Tracking

IBM Systems Magazine, October 2012

Manually tracking IT assets can be time-consuming and error-prone. However, use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags can simplify asset tracking, improve accuracy, and provide increased levels of security to assist with compliance requirements.

About 10 years ago, RFID technology began widespread use for supply-chain management in the packaged-goods industry. More recently, some North American-based financial companies recognized its potential benefits to track IT assets. They organized the Financial Services Technology Consortium (FTSC), which published standards for RFID tagging of IT assets. Their implementation has helped address elements of Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

The FTSC requirements address issues such as:

  • Durability. The tags’ lifespan must be consistent with IT assets (7-10 years).
  • Readability. They must be read in a highly metallic environment where they’re surrounded by and attached to servers and racks.
  • Completed in 2008, the FTSC standard subsequently has been implemented by tag manufacturers, IT vendors and customers. It’s also compatible with RFID standards from EPCglobal, an organization focused on establishing worldwide standards for electronic product code technology.
  • Benefits of RFID Tags

    The many benefits of RFID tagging include:

  • Assisting with asset-tracking compliance requirements
  • Significantly reducing the time to complete IT asset inventory, since there’s no need to look for hard-to-find serial numbers
  • More accurate collecting of inventory data
  • The ability to track assets moving in and out of the data center, reducing or eliminating the need to manually update asset location data
  • Reducing the loss of IT assets and, perhaps more importantly, the information contained within the asset
  • RFID Primer

    RFID tags can be active or passive. Active tags have a built-in power source, typically an integrated battery. While offering a greater read distance, they have a limited lifespan, dependent upon how frequently they transmit a signal. Passive tags don’t have an integrated power source. When an RFID reader is in the vicinity of the passive tag, it’s energized allowing it to broadcast information to the reader. Passive tags have shorter read distances than active tags.

    The inexpensive RFID tags found on consumer product packaging are usually paper and foil based, which is fine for supply-chain management applications. However, they aren’t suited for IT-asset management, because they lack durability and work poorly in highly metallic data centers. The FSTC standard addresses these shortcomings.

    FSTC Specifications

    The FSTC requirements include the following:

  • Tags must be pre-coded and installed by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM).
  • Each has a unique OEM identifier and serial number encoded on them.
  • Human-readable text on the tags is the same as the information encoded in them.
  • They must be durable with the ability to survive minor impacts.
  • They must be adhered to servers without penetrating the mounting surface (most use pressure-sensitive adhesive).
  • Each has a one-dimensional barcode (required) along with two-dimensional barcode (if space permits).
  • Tags must be readable from three feet with a handheld scanner and from six feet with a fixed reader. Fixed readers are installed at doorways to track asset movement within a data center.
  • The tags are generally made of a hard plastic and attached directly to a server chassis or system rack. This class of RFID tag is often referred to as metal on metal (MOM) or RFID on metal (ROM).
  • RFID tags for Power Systems Servers

    IBM began offering FSTC-compatible RFID tags as an orderable feature #5524 in October 2009. In 2012, IBM began shipping a revised RFID tag, feature #ERF1, which is smaller and compliant with revised, FSTC phase 2 specifications. First introduced with the IBM PureFlex Systems, #ERF1 is now available on other Power Systems servers. Feature #5525 is available for models 750, 755 and 795, rack model 7014-T42, and HMC model 7042-CR6. Feature #ERF1 is available on server models 710, 720, 730, 740, 770, and 780, along with PureFlex servers.

    These RFID tags are available with new system orders and cost around $20 to $30. They cannot be added later as an miscellaneous equipment specification (MES). For servers consisting of multiple drawers or components, the tag is installed on the primary device containing the system serial number. For example, a Model 740 server with an attached I/O drawer would have just one RFID tag attached to the 740.

    The information contained on the tag is predominately the OEM code and then a unique serial number for the tag itself. You would use a database to associate the RFID serial number with the IT asset serial number and other information about the asset (type, model, location, etc.).

    IBM Deployment Ready Services

    IBM has a set of server-deployment service offerings customized for Power Systems. Some of the more popular services include:

  • Customer-specified placement of adapter cards within servers and server placement within racks
  • Asset tagging (standard and RFID)
  • System customization (partitioning and OS)
  • For asset tagging, IBM can attach a standard RFID tags or RFID tags programmed with customer-specified information. As part of the offering, IBM can combine the RFID tag serial number, the asset serial number and the purchase order number into a consolidated date file. This information can be used to begin tracking IT assets the moment they arrive at a company’s loading dock.
  • A Good Time to Start

    While RFID tagging has been commonplace within supply-chain industries for more than a decade, it’s only been available for use within the data center for a few years. Still, it’s recommended you order all new servers with RFID tags. While you might not use them initially, over time you’ll build a critical mass of servers with RFID tags that will allow you to fully implement an RFID-tagging solution within your data center.