Active RFID Best for Data Centers – Why Active RFID Beats Out Passive RFID

By Gregg Primm

Data centers, with their countless racks and cabinets, may seem static at first glance, but these dynamic, unpredictable environments require precise and efficient asset management. Due to the high associated costs of manual inventory tracking and the inefficiency of inventory consolidation, data centers are increasingly turning to RFID to reduce costs, increase inventory accuracy, and improve overall operational efficiency. One recent example is the Social Security Administration’s announcement of a 90 percent reduction in the amount of labor required for tracking data center inventory and a 33 percent improvement in inventory accuracy after the adoption of RFID.

Active vs. Passive RFID

RFID technology is used to automatically track assets by sending radio waves to a reader. There are two types of RFID tags: active and passive. Active RFID tags have their own power source (i.e. a battery), while passive tags rely on a reader for power. The chief advantage found in choosing active RFID over passive is in automation: active RFID tags are able to continuously emit data whereas passive RFID tags must be manually scanned. While active and passive RFID tag technologies are frequently evaluated together, and passive solutions certainly provide great value in some deployment scenarios, active tags offer far greater value and functionality for data center asset tracking.

Automated Efficiency

With the average square footage of data centers between 10,000 and 25,000 sq. ft., manual asset tracking is no longer a viable option. Cisco recently published a case study chronicling their decision to shift from manual asset tracking to RFID tags to avoid error and decrease costs. Cisco IT chose to adopt active RFID tags, because passive RFID tags would lead to the same inconsistencies and labor associated with their previous spreadsheet-tracking method. Passive RFID tracking would require the team to manually scan tags in the event of equipment relocation—pulling valuable employees away from more vital tasks. Active RFID tags are able to transmit signal up to 300 feet, which means that stationary readers, such as those offered by RF Code, remain in a centralized location, as compared to passive tags which have a read range of only 20-40 ft.

Continuous Visibility

Active RFID tags’ ability to detect changes in the data center environment facilitates the only truly up-to-date DCIM system. By independently monitoring data center assets, organizations are able to receive real-time updates unavailable with passive tags. RFID solutions by reputable vendors are built on the open standards which allow the RFID system to be easily integrated into the center’s existing DCIM or ERP, thus preventing data system sprawl, unnecessary inventory reconciliation, and IT overhead.

Comparing Costs

Active RFID cost per unit are likely to be higher than passive units (for example, RF Code’s asset tags are priced at under $20 per tag, while functionally similar passive tags typically run $5-15 per tag). Organizations choose active RFID solutions because they provide greater ROI (return on investment). Passive RFID is more typically used on lower-cost, smaller assets due to its tendency towards error and malfunction.

With the higher cost of active RFID tags when compared with passive RFID tags, the up-front cost of an active RFID solution deployment may be higher than a comparable passive RFID solution. However, once the costs of the handheld passive RFID readers and portals required to read the tags are factored in, the price differential often becomes far less significant … or disappears altogether. More importantly, passive RFID solutions require ongoing, periodic manual effort to energize the tags and collect the data they provide, which translates to costly person-hours as an ongoing annual expense.

Conversely, the automated data provided by active RFID solutions requires no manual interaction and delivers continuous information about assets and their environment for the entire life of the tag or sensor. This automation ensures accuracy and prevents asset loss, while also freeing personnel who would typically be tasked with gathering asset data manually to perform more important, less time-consuming work. The result is a very rapid return on investment (typically less than a year) and ongoing savings that result in a far lower total cost of ownership for active RFID solutions.

Active RFID Deployments

Once an active RFID ITAM solution has been chosen, some up-front planning has to be done before deploying the solution and bringing it online. As with any complex project, “look before you leap” is the best course of action. Before purchasing a specific number of tags and starting to attach them to every enterprise asset, make a determination about which assets should be tagged and how those tags will be deployed. When planning how to affix the asset tags, also work out how the asset data will be input into backend systems. Because active RFID is a radio-based technology, it is also important to work with the solutions provider to perform a site survey to determine the minimum number of readers that will be required to accurately collect asset location data in the facility.

Other considerations for sizing the project include security considerations. Are the assets being tracked highly valuable or do they contain sensitive or secure data? If so, consider the purchase of active RFID tags that include security safeguards such as tamper detection/reporting or motion detection. It is also possible to monitor the environmental conditions around your assets.

With the decision made about the hardware to purchase, it is time to return to planning out how the asset data will be collected and accounted for in the backend systems. How does this project interact with other plans? Is a new asset lifecycle management software solution going to be purchased, or will the collected data be fed into an existing system? Include the RFID solutions provider in the determination of what software and systems integration needs are to help ensure a speedy and successful deployment.

Planning Checklist for Active RFID
Determine which assets will be tagged
Consider options for the deployment of asset tags
Lay out the collection of data to backend systems
Conduct a site survey with provider to determine number of readers
Consider impact of planned projects for other related systems
Develop the data collection and feed to backend systems process

About the Author

Gregg Primm is the Marketing Manager for RF Code, Inc.