Making RFID part of the Network Platform – Cisco

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Content Copyright © 2007 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

Cisco sees RFID as part of the evolution of the network with RFID enabling the transfer from an internet of devices to an internet of things. “Things” become networked by adding tags to them. The ‘information’ about ‘things’ becomes networked through the use of sensors. This means that the growth in network traffic is going to come in the majority from RFID devices rather than computer clients (This supposition is supported by some research done by IDC[1]).

At the beginning of October 2007, I had a briefing with Andy Lee, Cisco’s RFID Market Development Manager, to understand Cisco’s approach to RFID and RTLS.

Cisco has 2 products in the RFID infrastructure space:

  • Cisco AON for RFID embeds RFID middleware functions into the network -onto Cisco devices.
  • Cisco Location Solution is a Real-Time Location solution using Active tags with Cisco’s WiFi solution.

Let us first have a look at AON for RFID (Applications-Oriented Networks). It is a mix of software, hardware, and service offerings:

  • Cisco 2600/2800/3700/3800 Series AON Module: this is a network module that can be installed in any Cisco 2600 or 3700 series router as well as the Cisco 2800 Series Integrated Services Router and the Cisco 3800 Series Integrated Services Router. It is primarily deployed at the enterprise edge as the primary device for RFID filtering, collection, and capture.
  • Cisco Catalyst 6500 Series AON Module: this is a service module that can be installed in any Cisco Catalyst 6500 Series switch to take advantage of the switch’s availability, security and traffic management capabilities. The AON Service Module will be deployed in the data centre, providing intelligent message routing of RFID messages and integrating into existing business applications.
  • Cisco AON Management Console (AMC): this is a Linux-based (RedHat) Web application. AMC provides role-based access control for centralised management of AON. The application helps ensure that the configurations across all Cisco AON devices (nodes) in a distributed infrastructure are consistent and up-to-date.
  • Cisco AON Development Studio (ADS): this is a Windows (2000 or XP) design-time tool. ADS allows developers to configure the run-time handling of application messages.
  • Cisco AON for RFID Advanced Services Offerings: this is a Cisco advanced services group offering of a set of packaged service offerings designed to help clients design, build, and deploy RFID solutions using Cisco AON.
  • The final component is BEA’s WebLogic RFID Edge Server, which forms an integrated component of the Cisco AON for RFID solution. This is implemented on the Cisco Routers.

So, what we have in AON for RFID is software modules that are added to the Cisco standard routers, plus a Linux management console and a Windows development environment. AON has really strong support for EPCglobal standards covering the entire stack that has been ratified at the present time. There are 2 extensions currently available for AON. The first is for financial services and supports the use of Financial Information eXchange (FIX) protocol. The other is B2B processing and covers secure file transfer.

So what about Cisco Location Solution? The foundation of the Cisco Location Solution is the controller-based architecture of the Cisco Unified Wireless Network. This Network product consists of 3 major components:

  • Cisco Aironet access points wirelessly connect devices to the network resources and simultaneously monitor the air space to send radio information back to the WLAN controllers.
  • WLAN controllers can be standalone devices or integrated with switches or routers, which collect and analyse the information sent by the access points and build a view of the wireless environment and automatically take action to avoid interferences or gaps in coverage.
  • Cisco Wireless Control System is a management tool that uses the information gathered by the WLAN controllers to provide a view of the WLAN across multiple controllers for planning, configuration, and management from a central location.

The key piece of hardware in the Cisco Location solution is the Cisco Wireless Location Appliance. This requires no client software or proprietary readers and provides an open “north-bound” SOAP/XMP API. This means that a business can choose any applications it wants based on end-user requirements rather than network constraints, because the solution allows any application to be supported independently from the tags used.

The Cisco Location Solution supports 2 different styles of location services. The first is a WiFi Location System, which provides updates of the location and telemetry information sent between the locatable device (WiFi device or tag) and the reader (access point) over a long range, plus pervasive tracking of the location and telemetry information (over all the facilities). The second location service is a chokepoint Location System which updates location and telemetry information on a per-event basis, such as when the tag is in proximity of the chokepoint.

Cisco’s RFID Strategy is built on the premise that, over time, many objects will be tagged and that therefore the network traffic involving information to do with location and other pieces of associated information such as environmental information (e.g. temperature) increases.

AON for RFID has some compelling reasons why organisations should look at it as a possible solution for RFID middleware. With Cisco’s strong market segment share of the network market, most organisations are using Cisco routers and the ability to use certain of their existing range as the base platform means that there is cost reduction for implantation of an RFID solution. The one drawback to the solution is the single choice of middleware technology partner: BEA.

The Cisco Location Solution is a good choice for organisations deploying their first location and telemetry solution. The equipment to be added is minimal (Cisco Wireless Location Appliance) and the management tool (Cisco Wireless Control System); of course as long as you are using Cisco routers! The use of the WiFi standard means that organisations are not locked into a proprietary solution and can track all its WiFi devices without additional cost.

Cisco has an interesting perspective on RFID and, with their strength in the network market, have the necessary existing customer base to exploit to gain a good market share. Bloor would recommend all Cisco customers to consider Cisco RFID solutions if they are looking at the technology.

[1] Planning for Proliferation: The Impact of RFID on the Network, Duncan Brown and Evelien Wiggers, IDC White Paper, March 2005.