If you're planning an RFID roll-out - and many enterprises are, as analyst firm IDTechEx predicts the market for RFID systems will top $7 billion by 2007 - then it will have a major impact on large enterprise networks. That's the prediction from analysts at IDC in the just-released Cisco-commissioned report, Planning for Proliferation: The Impact of RFID on the Network.

According to the report, the success of such deployments is likely to be linked to a network's ability to handle RFID data intelligently and securely right to the edge of an organisation. The paper states that organisations need to take action now to ensure their networks are up to the task of handling large-scale RFID roll-outs, before these happen.

RFID's impact
Based on interviews with a number of retail and logistics firms currently using RFID, the report predicts that the technology will have a significant impact on enterprise networks not just because of the number of tags likely to be involved, but also because of the volume of data tags can hold and the number of times it is scanned during transit or processing.

The report argues that deployment will have an appreciable impact volumes of network traffic, and needs to be considered in the light of other upcoming demands on the network such as voice. That's a result of the low range of RFID radio technology, which means large numbers of readers will be needed, and because each tag will be scanned several times on its journey along the supply chain.

Network design
Traffic volumes are only part of the only story though, according to IDC. Network design is also a critical factor. Issues that RFID systems raise include security, as they involve the passage of product information, often across organisational boundaries, as supply chain partners exchange information.

What this means, says the report, is that the network must be secure, logical data access to product information must authorised (using digital certificates, for example), and physical access to tags, readers and other assets must be controlled.

Equally vulnerable is the network at companies' distribution centres, warehouses, and store rooms, where RFID-tagged cases, pallets, or other items enter into the possession of a company or one of its stores. Unsecured wireless networks present opportunities for eavesdropping on data.

In fact, all the usual security issues apply to RFID, from interception of wireless transmissions to authenticating unknown parties requesting data. These are compounded by the potentially high number of tags and readers, which increases the opportunity for vulnerabilities to be exploited.

Network availability, storage and device management are other questions to be answered by those planning RFID roll-outs, said the report.

"RFID system expansion is inevitable, as proliferation throughout the supply chain is a core premise for the realisation of system benefits," said report author Duncan Brown. "It is important for organisations to consider the impact on network infrastructure at the beginning of RFID rollout, and to build in scalability from the start. Adjusting the network design retrospectively will be complex and expensive."

Practical advice
So, what should enterprises do? The report suggests that, in internal deployments, organisations take a step-by-step approach.

  • Check the infrastructure for bottlenecks. Testing the capacity of the network while interacting with just a few partners presents a low-risk approach to assessing network impact.

  • Security becomes a high priority as information exits the organisation.

  • Network upgrades should be performed before full-scale roll-outs -- demand on the network and attached devices will soar as multiple organisations interconnect RFID infrastructures and the numbers of devices and tags rise significantly.

  • Device density increases substantially, so device management also becomes critical.

  • More sophistication at business process and infrastructure layers is needed. Application-aware network capability can add substantial value by implementing application logic and routing at the network level, thus increasing efficiency while reducing network traffic
  • The sting
    Naturally, network vendor Cisco added that it already offers the features needed for an RFID-ready network.

    "Cisco's resilient, end to end, robust networks support the way information is used and directed across an organisation," said Cisco marketing director Kaan Terzioglu. "By making such information available throughout the organisation, Cisco helps facilitate the complete supply chain that is proving so valuable to retailers, government and industry. Based on Cisco networks, retailers can respond more quickly, track assets more accurately, improve adaptability, and create a highly effective, sustainable end-to-end supply chain based on RFID technology."

    Report publisher IDC is a subsidiary of Techworld's owner, IDG Communications.