By Claire Swedberg
Feb. 24, 2012—Several U.S. businesses are deploying an RFID
solution that provides visibility into the identity and location of every piece of equipment stored within their data center. Developed by Vizualiiz
, the software—known as LightsOn—utilizes passive ultrahigh-frequency
) EPC Gen 2
RFID tags to track the locations of servers within a data center, in order to identify not only which servers are onsite, but also their exact positions in a specific rack and in a particular part of the room.
Vizualiiz is a startup launched by the husband and wife team of Kathy Cartwright, the company's CEO, and Bob Cartwright, its president. Prior to launching Vizualiiz, the couple cofounded Dimension Systems
, a value-added IT reseller. Craig Kelly, Vizualiiz's CTO, previously worked for Amazon.com
, in various roles involving technology operation management.
Click here to view a larger version of this image.
Vizualiiz's LightsOn software depicts a data center and its server racks in 3-D.
Bob Cartwright has met with data-center managers who, he says, would estimate the number of servers on their premises and could be off by hundreds or thousands of units. To improve visibility into their inventory, many data centers employ an outside company, such as Dimension Systems, to periodically visit their facilities to count and identify the servers, either by visually reading serial numbers or by scanning bar codes. That process could take days, weeks or even months, he says.
"Customers would say, 'We want to renew out maintenance contract, but could you come in and audit the data center first?'" Cartwright says. The company would then dispatch personnel to perform the work, who would discover that items were missing—which was information that the data center might not trust. "I felt, at the time, there weren't tools available for us to be able to provide the solution they needed."
According to Cartwright, LightsOn reduces the amount of time spent conducting inventory counts from days down to minutes. His tests, he says, have shown that the system can read
approximately 1,500 passive RFID
tags within 15 minutes. The software runs on the Linux
operating system, with user-interface tools to manage read data and a reporting tool to generate business reports. The system includes a display of a customer's data centers in three dimensions—in other words, it can display not just in which rack or row a server is located, but also whether it is positioned at the top, bottom or middle of that rack, based on information input at the time that the tags were read.
With the system in place, an RFID tag
is attached to every server or other associated piece of equipment. Vizualiiz does not recommend a specific tag manufacturer; however, the company is currently utilizing tags provided by Omni-ID
. A handheld reader
is used to enter a rack's location and ID number, and to then read the server tag
in order to associate that tag to that specific rack position. "We've done a lot of testing to reduce the purchasing risk for our clients, and today, we're recommending the DoTel
DOTR-900 RFID reader," Cartwright says, noting that other UHF
handheld models would work as well.
Bob Cartwright, Vizualiiz's president
The read data is then forwarded to the Vizualiiz software residing on the user's back-end system, or on a cloud-based server. The software links the rack data to the RFID number, enabling a user to log in and view a three-dimensional map containing icons indicating which server is located at which rack position. Companies can utilize the software to locate a specific type of server, servers produced by a particular manufacturer or servers of a specified age.
What's more, the solution can be used for inspection and servicing purposes. For example, the date of each required inspection is stored in the software, and can be reviewed by data-center management. Vizualiiz can also provide functionality in the software, using color-coded icons to alert data centers regarding services needed. For instance, in the event that a server requires inspection or maintenance within 30 days, its ID and location would be displayed in yellow. If the maintenance or inspection date had already been reached, the same information would instead be displayed in red.
According to Cartwright's calculations, the labor cost for three audits of 15,000 items within a single year, performed using bar codes, would be approximately $56,250, based on the number of hours required to manually search for and scan bar codes. To perform the same task using the Vizualiiz RFID system would cost $3,375 in labor, he says, since a handheld reader need only be swept near each server. Because the system decreases the risk of assets being lost simply because they can not be found—even if, in fact, they are still located within the data center—LightsOn can save a company money, he says, by reducing the need to order additional inventory.
Regular inventory checks can also be accomplished using a handheld interrogator
, Kelly explains, by simply walking through the racks and sweeping the reader
past the servers. In that way, data can be updated in the event that equipment has been moved without management's knowledge.
Vizualiiz's staff currently attaches tags to servers for users. This tagging process can be the most expensive portion of the installation cost, Cartwright notes. As the company continues to streamline that process, it may opt to contract out that task to third-party providers. "We work hard to minimize every single direct keyboard input," he states, "by creating intelligent search lookups that auto-fill fields. And we will continue to look at more advanced technologies to further this automation."
Craig Kelly, Vizualiiz's CTO
Users can also install fixed readers on racks, as well as at doorways, to better manage location data. For example, if a server were input into the system, but was then moved by an individual who had failed to read its tag
, the information in the software would be inaccurate. If, on the other hand, an antenna
were installed on some racks, or at doorways, the software would receive read data indicating which server was being moved.
Furthermore, Cartwright notes, if active RFID
tags were employed instead of passive tags, location data could be tracked in real time. The high cost of active tags, however, would make such a solution more expensive. His company is likely to offer an active RFID solution in the future, he says, if it perceives a need from customers.
"As the cost of active tagging technology drops," Cartwright says, "it could very well fit a better cost model. In general, Vizualiiz is agnostic to the tagging technology used."