May 31, 2004 9:01 PM PDT

Sun adds Java tools to RFID menu

Sun Microsystems on Tuesday plans to launch a software package aimed at the RFID market.

The software, which is built on Sun's Java programming architecture and Jini networking technology, attempts to simplify integration of data collected via radio frequency identification (RFID) systems into other software applications. Managing the massive amounts of information generated by RFID tools ranks among one of the greatest hurdles faced by radio tag systems today.

The package, dubbed Sun Java System RFID Software, is made up of two primary elements. An event manager promises to help process information collected from RFID tags, or sensors, and filter the data based on customers' needs. An information server captures and stores information garnered using RFID technology and makes that data available to other applications such as supply chain management systems.

RFID tags are chips armed with radio frequency antennas that provide detailed information about the products to which they are attached. Analysts say that adoption of RFID will allow for more efficient tracking of inventory, thereby cutting costs and helping rectify some supply problems.

"RFID is not just drop-and-go technology. It still requires a lot of customization and adaptation."
--Juan Carlos Soto, director, Sun's advanced development group
Because Sun is blending its Jini networking tools into the RFID package, devices can be automatically detected and integrated when plugged into a network, which may prove useful in warehouse environments that use RFID technology. For instance, if a forklift runs over an RFID reader, the system would immediately recognize the loss of the device and alert administrators to the problem, saving a business the headache of losing track of shipments or inventory.

The Java System RFID Software falls into the category of so-called middleware, meant to help various pieces of radio tag equipment and software work together more smoothly. Juan Carlos Soto, director for the advanced development group at Sun, said the package is based on tools his company developed while working with RFID internally and in early pilot programs with customers.

"We've been using the middleware in trials for some time and have taken what we've learned from that process and incorporated it into a product," Soto said. "RFID is not just drop-and-go technology. It still requires a lot of customization and adaptation for each specific application a customer has, so middleware is a very important component."

The initial version of the Sun RFID middleware will operate on the company's Solaris operating system and is scheduled to ship in the summer of 2004, with a Linux-oriented version of the product scheduled to arrive in the fall.

Tagged for success
While the package of integration applications has been in use inside the company for some time, its commercial introduction marks Sun's first product aimed at the burgeoning RFID space. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company debuted the package at its ongoing Network Computer '04 event in Shanghai, China.

Before the product release, Sun had been testing out the market for RFID software and consulting, asking a number of organizations, including Wal-Mart Stores and the U.S. Department of Defense, to participate in high-profile pilots of the technology.

Along with the middleware package, the company has announced an RFID services partnership with Capgemini and has opened a radio tag system test center in Dallas--all within the last month.

Sun is trying to launch its RFID products and services quickly partly due to the looming threat of similar offerings from its largest rivals, including IBM, Microsoft and Oracle, all of which hope to win a sizable share of the radio tag middleware market.


related commentary
In the middle with RFID
Middleware for radio frequency
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Sun's Soto believes middleware is one of the most important elements in building RFID systems, helping to deliver cost savings and security. However, he said his company has RFID plans that go far beyond software.

"Middleware is only a piece of the puzzle, and we hope to bring broader RFID offerings than anyone else on market today, including hardware, services, partnerships and the test center, because each of these is needed to make all the parts work together," Soto said.

In a recent report, analysts at Forrester Research marked Sun as a potential leader in the RFID space, but indicated that the company will face stiff competition from its rivals and emerging radio tag specialists, including Manhattan Associates and OATSystems, which often beat the bigger companies to market with products.

Forrester analyst Sharyn Leaver wrote in the report that all the big players can potentially succeed with RFID, given their experience with scalable infrastructure software, but questioned if vendors, including Sun, could get their products to market soon enough for end users working to meet RFID technology mandates.

Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart, one of the major catalysts behind the surge of interest in RFID, has given its top 100 suppliers until January 2005 to begin affixing the radio tags to shipments sent to certain distribution centers and stores. Soto said he feels that the pressure from Wal-Mart and other companies, including German retail specialist Metro Group, accelerated the adoption rate of RFID by at least one year.

Where RFID's rubber meets the road
To Sun's credit, the company has already attracted some big-name customers involved in the major RFID pilots, including Goodyear Tire & Rubber, which is working with both Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense.

According to Steve Lederer, lead engineer at Goodyear Vehicle Systems, one of the deciding factors in working with Sun was the company's rapport with RFID hardware manufactures, specifically those making the readers used to scan radio tags and makers of the chips themselves. Goodyear is two weeks into a six-week test at Sun's Dallas facility, after which, Lederer said, his company will have a better feel for whether it will meet the RFID mandate.

"As we've gone out and tried to get reader equipment of our own to test, it's been very hard to actually get our hands on the tools, since so many of the devices are being continually updated to meet new standards," Lederer said. "Sun is in a position where the hardware guys want them to have their products, and we're working with at least five different readers and a dozen types of tags at the Sun facility right now. That was a big advantage in choosing them."

One of the biggest hurdles in adopting RFID at Goodyear is figuring out a way to get the tags onto its products so that they can survive the shipping process and still be removable at a retailer's point of sale, as the Wal-Mart mandate requires. Because Goodyear's tires also contain steel belts, which can wreak havoc with RFID tag transmissions, the company wanted to test as many hardware combinations as possible to find a system that works.

"We've done some small testing in-house but decided that wasn't going to work for us," Lederer said. "We needed a dedicated facility where we could see how the tools work or don't work together to automate things, and that's what we're getting at Sun."

 

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