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RFID for Data Centers: 4 Traits Your Tags Must Have

Data centers across every industry are using RFID to track, manage and secure their IT assets. But if you want to effectively deploy RFID in your data center, you’ll need to select your tags carefully.

Below are four issues you need to address.

A data center is the most benign environment you could deploy RFID in. That’s because the significant environmental controls used to protect IT devices also protect the RFID tags you use to track them. This eliminates the many stressors that cause tags to fail, like heat, moisture, chemicals, impacts and severe vibration.

But despite these favorable conditions, there are a number of constraints that make it difficult to mount tags on data center assets. To optimize the performance of your RFID system, you’ll need tags that meet these requirements.

Tag Size

When tagging data center assets, the biggest issue is footprint – the size of the tag. A typical asset has connections, wires and vents taking up most of the interior and exterior surfaces. This makes finding the space to mount a tag a challenge.

This presents a number of constraints you’ll need to work around.

Shapes

Data center assets come in many sizes and configurations. It is likely you will need a variety of sizes to fit all the devices in your data center. 

Thickness

The second factor affecting tag mounting is thickness. A lot of data center assets only have room to support a thinner tag. This limits the range of tags you can use and the RFID service providers you can work with, as not everyone carries an ultra-thin RFID tag. You’ll also need to ensure the profile doesn’t interfere with the way devices are mounted or used.

Read Range

One final consideration is the read range of the tag. Most data centers deploying RFID don’t require a long read range for standard tracking processes.

However, if you intend to use RFID for security applications, the tags you use will need a long enough read range for portals to reliably read the tags as they pass through.

Surface Compatibility

To achieve reliable performance, an RFID tag has to be compatible with the surface to which it is mounted. Certain surface materials like metals interfere with RF waves.

For example, if you need to mount a tag on a metal surface, you’ll need a mount-on-metal or multi-surface tag. If you mount a tag designed for non-metal surfaces onto a metal surface, the tag won’t work at all.

This problem is particularly pressing for data centers. 

Data center assets frequently include metal surfaces that require a mount-on-metal tag. You also need to worry about the proximity of the surface to nearby metal. A plastic surface near metal will perform like a mount-on-metal application.

Another challenge is that devices in data centers often contain plastic materials that look like metal. 

This causes two problems:

First, you could mistake the plastic for metal and use a mount-on-metal tag, which won’t work properly.

Second, you could properly identify the material as plastic, but the coating contains metal and is conductive enough that it will act like a metal for the purposes of RFID. In this case, a tag designed for plastic surfaces won’t work, so you’ll need to select a mount-on-metal tag.

Because of this, it’s fairly common to not know what material you’re mounting a tag on. This means you have to be careful about the tag you’re picking to achieve optimal performance.

Metallic Interference

In spaces with high quantities of metal, metallic interference can reflect and alter the radio waves RFID tags and readers use to communicate. With so many devices packed into one space, data centers contain enough metal to cause serious interference with an RFID system. 

Another consideration is the device out of the box might look very different from the device in use. For example, when you mount a tag, the device has a clean and open bezel. But deployed in the data center the device may have dozens of interconnect cables plugged into its front panel. These connections may shield the tag from the reader, reducing the reliability of the system. When mounting the tags, you need to consider the ‘as deployed’ configuration of the device and ensure that the tag is positioned to read well as the device is mounted in the rack and with all of the interconnects in place.

Mounting Method & Cost

So far, we’ve reviewed the traits an RFID tag needs to ensure the RFID system performs well. Another critical consideration when selecting tags is their cost. It is often assumed that the price of the tag is the key consideration, but this can be a bad assumption. 

Often, the labor costs of mounting the tag greatly exceed the cost of purchasing the tags. Identifying a tagging location, mounting the tag, commissioning and testing the tags are all time-consuming activities. So, the best way to reduce the total costs of deploying your RFID tags is to pick a tag that’s easy to deploy. If the tag is a little more expensive to buy but much easier to deploy, the net cost is likely to be lower.

Data center managers should also be aware that some IT equipment manufacturers recognize that their customers use RFID to help them track assets, and they are building RIFD tags into their equipment. These devices arrive at the data center ready to be added to an RFID tracking system with none of the considerations mentioned above. The manufacturer has done the engineering that ensures good RFID performance and has borne the cost of buying and mounting the tags. Buying devices with incorporated RFID can eliminate the need for selecting, purchasing, mounting and testing your own RFID tags. Cisco is one major manufacturer incorporating RFID into their devices.

In the end, a tag with a higher price but faster implementation could reduce your labor costs and save your business money.

Conclusion

RFID tags offer numerous benefits for tracking data center assets. But to reap those benefits, you need to select tags that provide reliable reads in the data center so your data is accurate and complete.

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