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In the increasingly competitive RFID arena, IBM on Thursday will release the first three products from its recently formed $250 million S&A (Sensor & Actuator) arm.

The new IBM WebSphere RFID Device Infrastructure and IBM WebSphere RFID Premises Server are specifically geared to RFID. The third new middleware product, IBM WebSphere Remote Server, supports emerging handheld, kiosk and self-checkout devices, either with or without RFID.

“One of IBM’s points of differentiation is that we’re offering an end-to-end solution,” Ann Breidenbach, director of strategy for IBM’s S&A, said in an interview with

Read more here about IBM’s RFID investment.

Other platform giants now vying for leadership positions in RFID include long-time IBM nemesis Sun Microsystems Inc.; Oracle Corp.; Hewlett-Packard Co..; SAP AP and Microsoft Corp.

IBM’s new RFID Premises Server and Remote Server middleware products are both based on the same J2EE platform. “We hear most often about RFID in retail, but [these products] can also be used in warehousing and manufacturing, for example,” Breidenbach said. IBM’s RFID customers include companies in the automotive, electronics and aerospace industries.

As its name suggests, IBM’s new Remote Server product is deployed remotely, at individual stores or warehouses, for instance. The RFID Premises Server, on the other hand, can be implemented at either remote locations or a central data center.

IBM is selling the RFID Premises Server and Remote Server to end customers. Metro Group, a huge retailer in Europe, is already using RFID Premises Server, according to Breidenbach. RFID Device Infrastructure, on the other hand, is targeted at IBM’s outside OEM partners, for integration with their RFID readers and controllers.

The new RFID Premises Server is designed to collect and filter data from RFID devices, execute business processes and integrate the RFID information with third-party software applications for ERP (enterprise resource planning) and warehouse management, for example.

Next Page: Remote Server aims to integrate newer environments with legacy devices.

In contrast, Remote Server is tailored mainly toward integrating the newer handheld, kiosk and self-service environments with legacy devices such as IBM POS (point-of-sale) terminals, she said.

“Most companies interested in handheld or self-service checkout devices want to build on the infrastructures they already have,” the IBM exec told

Customers also can run third-party store management and promotion management applications on Remote Server, for example. An optional RFID component is available for the Remote Server

The Premises and Remote servers each come with a built-in WebSphere Application Server, an IBM Universal DB2 database repository and IBM Tivoli management tools, among other components. The Premises server can be used for remote server management, too.

As other competitive advantages for IBM, Breidenbach cited IBM’s support for “open standards” and its policy of not competing with either RFID device makers or third-party application software vendors.

As some analysts see it, IBM’s three new products bolster a position in RFID that is already very strong.

IBM has worked with early adopters in developing the middleware, according to Sharyn Leaver, an analyst at Forrester Research. “These aren’t products that were dreamt up in a lab,” the analyst said in another interview with

“Another key part is that IBM also has a services component with experienced talent in RFID,” Leaver said.

IBM’s solution is also highly scalable, according to Leaver. “A whole swarm of giants has been trying to enter into the platform role,” she said. “[But] IBM’s tiered architecture can be used for everything from a small pilot to a large deployment. That kind of scalability has been missing until now.”

Although high scalability hasn’t been at the top of customers’ priority lists during early RFID trials, that’s starting to change already, the analyst said.

“Customers are already moving from [an attitude of], ‘How do I respond to this [RFID] mandate?’ to ‘How can I achieve the maximum benefits from RFID, now and in the future?’” according to Leaver.

List pricing for the Premises and Remote servers is $5,750 per processor. IBM is recommending a two-processor minimum configuration.

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