RFID for Data Center Asset Management: Keeping Pace with the Data Age

Data centers have become critical assets for modern society. The emergence and popularity of the internet, mobile devices, and the Internet of Things (IoT) are creating unimaginable amounts of information and data storage capacity must increase to match it. Radio frequency identification (RFID) enabled asset management offers a solution to improve efficiency and reduce costs, thereby facilitating increased capacity and performance of data centers.

The Data Age

The data age is upon us. The significant drop in the price of sensors has enabled us to harness the power of the IoT by gathering unprecedented levels of information from our environment. By feeding this data into AI driven, cloud-based, big data analytics, we beginning to understand our surroundings better than ever before. However, the huge changes we are seeing today are just sneak peek of the intelligent and connected future on the horizon.

“We are fast approaching a new era of the Data Age. From autonomous cars to humanoid robots and from intelligent personal assistants to smart home devices, the world around us is undergoing a fundamental change, transforming the way we live, work, and play,” explains researcher David Reinsel in an IDC White Paper entitled Data Age 2025.

Big data and advanced analytics are creating efficiencies for everything, from our power and water grids, to our streets and buildings, and even physical and human business assets. However, the cloud is not a virtual space in the metaphorical sky where our information floats around waiting to be analyzed. It is made up of heavy industrial facilities or “information factories.” Chasing these data driven opportunities has a very real cost – these unfathomable levels of data need to be physically managed and stored.

IDC forecasts that by 2025 the world’s total data output, or “global data sphere,” will grow to 163 zettabytes. One zettabyte is equivalent to a trillion gigabytes and 163 zettabytes is ten times more than the 16.1 zettabytes of the total data we generated around the world in 2016. This exponential growth in data is driving the construction of bigger and bigger data centers, housing increasingly more advanced technologies.

Rise of the Data Center

The relatively poor economic conditions since the 2008 global economic crises underlined the importance of total cost of ownership (TCO) for businesses. Understanding the true cost of a data center through its life cycle is fundamental to making decisions on its design and operation.

While budgets in general have suffered during this difficult decade, funds allocated to IT have actually increased year-on-year since 2011. Executives, advised by a new breed of CTOs, are increasingly appreciating the importance of staying at the forefront of technology advancement. In addition, this intelligent technology has proven its ability to add value and reduce costs. This is no different in the business of data centers.

The Asset Management Opportunity

The data center is not a static space where servers are locked away in supercooled rooms for decades. They are dynamic facilities undergoing continuous cycles of repair, replacement, upgrading and maintenance. It is by managing these assets better that we can offer the greatest opportunity for improvement in modern data centers.

The low-hanging fruit offered by streamlining operational expenditure (OpEx) in data centers has long been harvested, the focus now returns to capital expenditure (CapEx). This is not just the cost of the building and infrastructural systems such as power and air conditioning, which depreciate over decades. CapEx also includes IT hardware that can be replaced every few years or more. TCO for IT hardware dwarfs that of other CapEx over the entire lifecycle of assets.

Various research has shown the advantages of short IT hardware refresh cycles, in reducing costs and enhancing performance, for example. Every few years or less, a new generation of hardware offers more power, greater reliability, and better energy efficiency. By continuously upgrading server technology, data centers are able to improve their offering and increase their capacity without expanding their floor space.

Best practice recommends that servers maintain two to three-year refresh cycles, however most data centers are well off this target. An IDC survey showed that 65% of data centers refresh their servers on average every 5-10 years. The researchalso showed that “extending the replacement timeframe from just three to five years increases the failure rate by over 100% and more than doubles the cost of IT support staff labor.”

A vast opportunity exists from reducing the length of server refresh cycles but it makes managing data center hardware much more complex. More hardware being moved more often has led to increased logistical inefficiencies, theft and losses, slow audit and regulatory processes, as well as spiraling costs. Tracking assets using basic spreadsheets was once common practice. Now, advanced real-time lifecycle asset management is required to navigate this dynamic new environment and deliver the benefits it promises.

Cyber threats are often the focus of data center security, but neglecting physical security of assets has become a significant issue. Navigant Research estimatesthat “66-75% of information breaches stem from outright theft of servers and hardware, unauthorized access or use of computers and servers, and damage caused by the loss and/or improper disposal of equipment.”

The pressure is mounting on CIOs, as well as IT and data center managers to make their IT assets more secure, improve regulatory compliance, speed auditing procedures and reduce costs. The leading solution providers address all these issues and more with the latest RFID enabled asset management systems designed specifically for data centers.

The Solution: RFID Asset Management

Over the past decade RFID has proven itself as the leading solution for inventory tracking and asset management, especially in the most complex environments. From aerospace to retail, logistics to manufacturing, RFID is drastically increasing efficiency, which in turn reduces cost and increases capacity. The evolution of data centers has created a complex asset management problem and RFID provides the obvious solution.

The leading asset management solutions can create huge savings and performance benefits for data centers. These systems can store detailed information on each device in the facility, providing location, technical, purchase and maintenance data in real-time. Asset lifecycle management systems use this information to improve efficiency, streamline audits and optimize hardware utilization.

Passive RFID

Low-cost passive RFID tags provide huge improvement in accuracy on the barcode systems they often replace. Attaching tags to selected hardware allows those assets to be tracked as they move through strategically located “gateways,” where readers pick up on their frequency wirelessly.

This provides a real-time record of the location of every tagged asset, allowing operators to find hardware quickly and easily for maintenance or replacement. Handheld readers can also be used to more accurately and quickly take stock than is possible with barcode readers, thereby reducing labor costs and providing better information to decision makers.

Active RFID

Active RFID systems take asset management a step further. These self-powered tags allow for two-way communication between the hardware and the operator. Not only can active tags provide their real-time location as they move around the facility, they can also sense their environment and send critical information to the operator.

By adding sensors, active RFID systems can monitor the individual temperature, humidity, differential air pressure, fluid detection, and power usage of each device. If temperature of a server increases above ideal temperature for example, the exact location of the issue and likely causes can be identified remotely, then immediate measures can be taken to solve, slow or isolate the problem.

Loss prevention is also taken to new levels through active RFID systems. Tags are tracked as soon as they are in range of the facility and monitored continuously anywhere on the premises. This identifies misplaced items and protects from theft of assets from the moment they arrive to the moment they are prepared for exit, significantly reducing the chance for theft and misplacement. Active systems even sound an alarm when tags are tampered with or removed.

Leading Solutions

The data center is a complex environment for asset management. RFID systems must be able to operate in non-line-of-sight environments containing substantial amount of metal for example, which can interfere with radio-based communications. The leading solution providers can design and calibrate their RFID systems to perform well in these challenging conditions.

The wide variety of options available, especially with active tags, offers the opportunity for significant cost reduction and value creation. The most experienced and creative RFID solution providers create bespoke systems that address a wide variety of specific issues faced by the modern data center. As the demand for data storage and processing continues to rise exponentially, the need for advanced asset management has never been so great.

Conclusion

“Data has become critical to all aspects of human life over the course of the past 30 years; it’s changed how we’re educated and entertained, and it informs the way we experience people, business, and the wider world around us. It is the lifeblood of our rapidly growing digital existence,” states IDC’s Data Age 2025 paper.

“In just the past 10 years society has witnessed the transition of analog to digital. What the next decade will bring using the power of data is virtually limitless,” it continues. In fact, ninety percent of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone, and our current output of data is roughly 2.5 quintillion bytes a day, according to IBM. As the scale of data usage continues to grow, so must the capacity of data centers.

Be it by replacing old hardware with new, or simply adding more hardware, the role of asset management in data centers is increasingly valuable. The most ambitious data centers are already adopting RFID asset management systems to cut costs, create capacity and improve performance. Strong asset management provides the structured foundation upon which data centers can thrive in the data age.

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Jim Donaldson

Jim is the Sr. Director of Corporate Communications at Mojix, Inc., a leading provider of ITEM LEVEL intelligence solutions to the retail and industrial markets. Jim has more than 30 years experience working for both start-up and public technology companies.

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