Data Centers

Track data center assets more efficiently with Active RFID

An old management axiom says, "You can't manage what you don't measure." Learn how one company leverages Active RFID to help data centers run more efficiently.


 Image: iStock/gyn9038

A small data center may have 500 racks, with each rack conservatively holding 30 IT devices. That's 15,000 pieces of electronic gear in inventory. As someone who has a hard time remembering what's in his backpack, I cannot begin to fathom how one tracks 15,000 things, or even dare to contemplate how those responsible for inventorying assets in monster data centers manage to know the location of all their stuff.


To get some insight into how data-center managers pull off what seems to be a miracle, I asked Richard Jenkins, Vice President of Marketing & Strategic Partnerships at RF Code, Inc., for his help.

My first question for Jenkins was: How does a data center keep track of all that equipment? "Most data centers still take inventory manually," Jenkins said. "People either read the labels, scan bar codes, or use passive RFID technology; then somehow enter the information into the data center's inventory software."

Asset tracking methods

Figure A highlights the pluses and minuses of each asset-tracking method.

Figure A


 Image: RF Code

From Figure A, one can see that Active RFID seems like the opportune technology to use for asset tracking. Using Active RFID means asset tags have a transmitter and a power source, which are used at predetermined times to transmit pertinent information to a management system. Active RFID was an ulterior motive for my contacting Jenkins; RF Code is one of only a handful of companies using Active RFID to provide an automated system for tracking data-center assets.

Jenkins was more than willing to tell me all the advantages of using RF Code products, but I preferred learning what independent sources thought about RF Code. To that end, Gartner Research selected RF Code as a 2013 Cool Vendor, stating in its Data Center Infrastructure Management, Power and Cooling, 2013 report that:

"RF Code is not a Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM) vendor per se; rather its primary focus is to offer products that make the DCIM implementation better through delivery of real-time asset and environmental data."

Gartner continues:

"Although the company offers stand-alone asset management and environmental monitoring solutions that are fully functional and can meet the needs of many organizations, RF Code's real strength is in its data-collection capabilities via easy to deploy, low/no maintenance wire-free sensors, tags, readers, and open architecture which allows integration with any DCIM solution."

RF Code's capabilities

Gartner went on to explain that RF Code's solution had two types of sensors and a way of integrating it all into a workable system (Figure B).

Figure B


 Image: RF Code

Asset Management Solution: The asset sensor tags and the rack locators in Figure B work together to precisely locate the asset. The sensor tags are only granular enough to locate the device to a zone within a room. The rack locators will locate the server or networking implement to the exact rack and rack slot. Both sensors periodically transmit location information to the readers, which relay the data to the zone and asset manager, allowing data center personnel to monitor the assets and perform inventory functions.

Environmental Monitoring Solution: Active RFID sensors monitor temperature, humidity, differential air pressure, fluid detection, and power distribution unit (PDU) power usage at each individual rack and designated raised-floor space. Figure C shows a heat diagram from a RF Code installation.

Figure C


 Image: RF Code

Integration: Data center managers want to improve efficiency, avoid downtime, and plan for growth. In order to achieve all of these goals, they need a real-time overview of the power and cooling performance of its facility, asset location, and workload distribution. This is where Gartner feels RF Code has the advantage with a fully-integrated system. The fact that RF Code software provides an open architecture allows developers to integrate RF Code systems into larger DCIM environments.

Additional advantages to Active RFID asset tracking systems

Besides the obvious advantages of using Active RFID to locate assets, some additional benefits are:

  • As soon as shipping receives an asset and attaches an Active RFID asset tag, it can be tracked. This is an important consideration in larger data centers where devices are easily lost or misplaced.
  • The Network Operating Center is immediately notified when a piece of equipment is moved without authorization.
  • An attempt to remove the asset tag will raise an alarm—this is only possible using Active RFID.

The defragmented data center

Jenkins mentioned something interesting. He said a customer told him that RF Code's asset tracking and environmental monitoring system enables their data-center personnel to "defragment the data center" in real-time.

"For us to run the most dynamic IT service possible for our customers, we must position and provision resources before they are needed—similar in a fashion to what happens when a hard drive is defragmented."

Final thoughts

Trying to fathom defragging a data center is a bit like my working through data center personnel inventorying 15,000 servers. Something that is not hard to understand is the advantage of an automated Active RFID asset management system.

My thanks to Richard Jenkins for explaining the intricacies of managing data center assets.



Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.


Hi Michael, I've enjoyed reading your articles and I learn a lot from them.RFID is an area I have worked in for a number of years now.Please don’t take this the wrong way.While I appreciate the power of Active RFID there are some points I would like to note.

I realize that your article is targeted toward data center assets, but I think several of these points will be very applicable to a data center.

Point ONE.I think Figure A is highly subjective, in particular with regard to the Execution Costs.Figure A lists Barcode as Very High and Passive RFID as High, and it depends upon how you want to define Automation.

We’ve used barcodes for more than 20 years for tracking property and chemicals.The handheld readers we have use automation scripts to load and help in the reconciliation process to databases.Each item must be “touched” which makes things more labor intensive, but execution costs are not anywhere close to the same as Human Readable Labels.

We are now using Passive RFID to track chemicals.We have a similar level of automation with the Passive RFID system, but execution costs have been significantly reduced.We use a Zebra printers to both print the human readable information, a 2D barcode (as backup), and encode the passive RFID chip all within a few seconds.Passive RFID is awesome!

(see second post)


(followed from previous post)

Point TWO. I’m not sure the article or Figure A properly identifies the implementation costs. I would say Passive RFID can be about on par with Barcode implementation (implementing choke points would add more to the cost). With either approach tags are in the sub-dollar range. While Active RFID is about how much per tag? $35? $50? $100? Depending upon the design and features the cost can vary widely. The telemetry is nice but comes at a price.

Point THREE. I don’t think size was mentioned. This might not be super crucial for large IT assets in a data center, but important for smaller assets

Point FOUR. I was also wondering about Active Wi-Fi tags. Using our large wireless infrastructure and Cisco’s Mobility Services Engine (MSE), we track thousands of computers using their Wi-Fi cards (and also reduce the expense of affixing a tag). For equipment that doesn’t have a Wi-Fi card we’ve been experimenting with affixing Active RFID Wi-Fi tags.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t problems with Passive RFID. It has its own set of challenges that I won’t dive into here, but they can still be an excellent option and Figure A did not give me that impression.

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