Why Use RFID to Track Your IT Assets? – How to Make the Decision

By George E. Daddis

As an IT Asset Manager, you know that your job goes well beyond simply managing the inventory of IT assets in your organization. You have your finance team asking you to run reports to ensure compliance and audit requirements are met. You are responsible for people and time management to conduct those audits, many times taking your staff away from their regular responsibilities for hours, even days at a time. At the same time, you are managing an inventory that is constantly turning over, with employees regularly checking components in and out. Then, balance that with what could be security and loss prevention on those components – especially when it comes to your data center. Keeping track of everything, every day is an enormous task – and one that is an absolutely critical and high profile function in your business – so how do you do it?

What if I told you that there is a technology out there that could simplify all of those tasks; completely agnostic and works on any type of IT equipment without interfering with the operation of that equipment, is a simple overlay to your existing process, requires little to no technical training to use or operate, is virtually maintenance free and extremely inexpensive? I think you’d tell me that I was crazy and it seems too good to be true – but it’s 100% real and it’s Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).

Whether its laptops, iPads, racks, servers, printers or mobile devices — these assets are some of the most expensive that your organization will invest in. With an IT asset tracking system powered by RFID, you can automatically identify where your assets are, when they were deployed (including moves, adds, changes), and of course speed up your audit process from days or weeks to just hours – along with providing you the reporting capabilities you require.

The History

In 2005, Walmart mandated the use of RFID in their supply chain and by their suppliers. Since then, companies in a variety of industries have looked at a number of ways to leverage RFID technology to improve their businesses. From simple security to tracking pallets in a warehouse to asset management, RFID was gaining momentum. Particularly interested in the use of RFID to improve IT Asset management were large financial institutions like Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Citibank. Based on this particular and growing interest by financial services organizations, in 2008, the Financial Services Technology Consortium (FSTC) was formed. The consortium, founded by a number of North American financial institutions (including Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank and others), technology vendors, research groups and government agencies, published a set of standards for tracking IT assets with RFID. The standards provided guidance on functional requirements (tags, tag orientation, readability, etc.) and numbering schemes for tagging IT assets. The goal of these standards was to provide the financial industry, along with its IT asset suppliers, a common set of requirements for tracking IT assets with RFID, so no matter what institution or what asset you were tracking the process would be the same – creating a simple and reliable approach, that takes the guesswork out of the process for the IT Asset Manager. Although the FSTC is no longer an active organization, the groundwork and standards that they set are still relevant today and used as a benchmark when RFID is being considered for tracking IT assets.

The IT Asset Management Challenge

The challenge is finding a way to manage IT assets, meet reporting requirements, prevent loss and create a system that works for everyone in the organization without interfering with existing process or require any training. So where do you start – how do you accomplish this task and meet this challenge?

Let’s take a closer look at the most common ways to track IT assets:

  • Manually
  • Barcodes
  • Active RFID
  • Passive RFID

Many IT departments still manage assets via manual or paper audits. This could be a process that is conducted quarterly, semi-annually or annually based on the requirements set forth by the organization. If you have ever been involved in a paper audit – during any point in time in your career – you know two things: 1) you never ever want to do that again, and 2) there are always mistakes. In an IT asset environment, mistakes can mean miscounts or even leaks in data security – not good. Because of this, as well as the many hours of labor consumed during a manual audit, many organizations move to an approach employing barcodes.

Although by employing barcodes you have some level of automation, you still have limited security on the equipment and data as well as an intensive audit. To read a barcode in an inventory process, you have to have a line-of-sight to the tag – and you can only read one tag or asset at a time.

Another common and effective way of tracking IT assets is via active RFID. Active RFID employs a system driven by a tag that constantly transmits a signal. This provides continuous accurate location and inventory as well as an automated system and reporting – with little to no human error. Active tags placed on the equipment are a significantly higher profile than a barcode and incorporate a battery to support the “active” signal. Although very accurate, the system has higher maintenance (due to the power source replacements) and higher costs (initial tag and implementation costs vs. barcodes or passive RFID).

Passive RFID is quickly becoming the solution of choice to track IT assets. Not only does it provide a completely automated approach, but it is reliable, has no power source and the tags are available in multiple form factors – including labels (very cost effective). These tags require no line of sight, so if and when you have to conduct a manual audit, you have the ability to account for 10s of tags at a time with handheld readers vs. one at a time with a barcode. The best part is that a complete solution (hardware & software) incorporating passive RFID is a simple overlay to existing systems and individual processes. RFID is an agnostic technology – no matter the manufacturer, model, etc. of the equipment — it is standards-based and always works the same way. Start as small or as big as you want – it’s completely scalable.

Getting Started

It’s clear that businesses interested in tracking assets and improving visibility is increasingly looking to RFID as the solution. Whether it’s for simple asset tracking or to meet auditing and compliance requirements or for warehousing and deployment, the benefits of RFID vs. traditional methods (such as manual or barcode) are immense AND you can still have the benefit of human readable information on the tags.

So you may be asking yourself “Where do I go to start my process? Who do I look to for help?”

There are several challenges when looking at tagging IT assets , whether they are office equipment or racks/servers in a datacenter including multiple types of equipment, different shapes and sizes and in multiple locations. Take a look at the fundamentals that are driving your business decision first:

Define Opportunity: First and foremost — identify the challenge:

  • What is it that you are trying to accomplish with RFID
    • Improve overall asset management and identification
    • Inventory efficiencies (loss prevention)
    • Improve time it takes to conduct inventories (and provide paperwork)
    • Improve asset deployment efficiencies and future planning
    • Meet compliance and audit requirements
  • Are you replacing an existing methodology for tracking (i.e. barcode)?
  • What systems do you utilize today for inventory, control, deployment and auditing and what do you need it to do that you’re not getting today?

This will be a critical part of the process – identifying what obstacles or issues you are trying to overcome to help you to develop your budget, ROI and business case and evangelize the benefits of the solution with the rest of the organization.

System Requirements: What will you need to do to accomplish this task? What will it take to overlay RFID tracking into your existing infrastructure? Work with your internal resources and your system integrator to define this – in detail.

Selecting an Integrator: You may already have an integrator that you work with – if not, one can be recommended based on world-class choices to match your business, your requirements and your geography.

Selecting Tags and Readers: What is it that you are interested in tracking – is it a fixed or mobile asset? Is it in a data center? It could be metal-based or plastic-based assets or both – how do you find a tag that will perform equally well on those assets?

Based on the type of assets, what may be the purpose in tracking them and will they be tracked by handheld or portal readers?

How will these assets be used on a day to day basis and how durable does the tag need to be based on that usage (ie: indoor, mobile, datacenter, clean/wipedown, etc)?

With multiple locations, where could these assets end up and how will they be moved around or even if they are being tracked from a stored inventory perspective – how will they be deployed?

The engine of your system is going to be the RFID tag that you select. This is probably one of the most important decisions you will make along the way. Ensure that, when you put together your requirements, you take into consideration the complexity of your environment:

  • Look for a tag that will work in a metal rich environment, consistently, whether it’s attached to metal, plastic or even tethered to the asset
  • Look for a small footprint and low profile to fit your assets
  • Look for tags designed to read easily from any angle, no line of sight required. Check to make sure that the tags you select are tested by you and get the desired read range – no matter what angle you’re reading them from with a handheld or portal reader
  • Are they printable with human readable info so it can fit your process? RFID labels are an option and they offer on-site deployment with thermal barcode printers
  • Do you have multiple locations globally? Make sure you select tags that have a global frequency

Installation Process Plan: Once you’ve received the go-ahead, have selected your partner and components, carefully plan out the deployment process with your integrator. Communicate this process throughout your organization; this will help ensure you obtain the right resources to execute on your plan.

About the Author

George Daddis

George Daddis is the CEO of Omni-ID.