Real-Time Mobile IT Asset Tracking


The Customer
NTT Multimedia Communications Laboratories Inc. (NTT MCL) is part of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT), a leading global provider of telecommunications services, and was created to pursue the commercialization of advanced technologies that would leverage NTT's expertise in multimedia communications. Since its formation in 1996 NTT MCL has evolved into an overseas advanced research and development arm of NTT Communications.

The Need
Mobile computing equipment such as laptops, PDAs, and smart phones often contains sensitive company information that is worth more than the value of the hardware and software. As the value of these mobile information assets has increased, NTT MCL has put in place a comprehensive environment to provide both asset security and asset tracking. In addition to security technologies, the company needed a system to unobtrusively monitor and track IT assets as they moved in to and out of its facility. The system had to support internal asset inventory systems, provide control over the duration for which assets are allowed to be off site, and generate real-time alerts if specific assets went off site.

NTT MCL's IT department oversees nearly 100 laptops and other mobile assets at NTT MCL's San Mateo, CA, location. The assets are individually assigned to employees based on role, project, and location. Because of the dynamic nature and variety of research domains, employees and assets are frequently reassigned to specific projects that cover a broad spectrum of wireless, security, and IP technologies. As a result, the asset-tracking system had to be able to track asset properties and attributes such as make, model, serial number, and inventory number.

The Solution
After evaluating available solutions, NTT MCL selected the Omnitrol Asset Tracking system that uses RFID sensor technologies from Impinj and Omni-ID. The appliance-based Omnitrol Asset Tracking solution used Impinj Speedway Revolution RFID readers with circularly polarized antennas deployed at the facility entrances and exits. The RFID readers are managed directly by the industrial-grade Omnitrol appliance running the Asset Visibility Edgelet, a real-time software package that implements sophisticated status, presence, identification, and directionality algorithms to determine what asset is moving where, with a high degree of reliability.

System installation involved the following steps:

  1. Connected the Omnitrol appliance to the NTT MCL network and mounted the RFID readers and antennas in the ceiling over the facility entrance/exits.
  2. Configured the zones in which the assets were to be tracked.
  3. Placed an Omni-ID metal-mount Flex RFID tag on each asset to be tracked.
  4. Registered each asset with the Omnitrol Asset Tracking system.
  5. Tuned the antenna locations and RFID reader parameters for optimal performance at each entrance/exit.

Omnitrol's system lets the IT department know where each tagged asset currently is, who has it, how long it has been checked out, when it is due to be returned, and whether it is forbidden to leave the building. The system also provides tools for protecting company confidentiality, tracking valuable assets, enabling cost reduction, and giving an overall view of what's happening with the assets, and what the employees are working on. It also provides perimeter alerts when an asset goes outside its permitted zones, delinquency alerts when an asset is not seen back within a specific time period, and asset alerts when a specific asset is sensed. It can be used to track warranties, calibration, and repairs; software packages and releases; and loaners and conference equipment.

Reduce Costs of Tracking Assets
Some companies have implemented check-in and checkout procedures to control the removal of valuable assets. Sign-up sheets or security guards noting serial numbers of each asset entering or leaving the office space are time-consuming at best. Systems based on active tags or Electronic Asset Surveillance (EAS) technologies turn out to be either too expensive or too complicated and cumbersome to deploy.

Before the installation of the Omnitrol Asset Tracking system, NTT MCL IT managers would regularly inventory the pool of IT assets on the premises. This was time-consuming, especially if some of the employees and assets were not in the facility at the time. Now the managers can securely connect to Web-based reports and get a precise count of the assets in the building and when other, off-site assets will be back.

The installation involved an iterative approach to optimally position the RFID antennas. After the system was installed and the assets tagged, no more manual intervention was required.

Behind the Solution
The brains of the system are provided by the Omnitrol appliance, which is an all-in-one, telco-grade, RFID application network appliance that securely integrates business process intelligence with real-time sense-and-respond devices at the network's edge.

The appliance implements the company's application and services delivery engine, Edge Application and Sensor Engine (EASE), designed to simplify and rapidly develop business workflow solutions integrating intelligent edge devices. EASE's powerful, state-driven Service Description Language (SDL) is an easy way to understand the English-like service definitions and state-modeling language.

The Result
By mounting the readers and antennas in the ceiling, the completely passive system is hidden from view with no operational impact on NTT MCL personnel as they entered and exited the facility.

The asset tracking system now automatically tracks tagged assets as they enter and leave the NTT MCL facility. Through an easy-to-use Web interface, NTT MCL personnel can see the real-time status of each asset, whether they are checked in or out of the facility, how an asset has been checked out, and the specific asset's complete history. In addition, the system highlights those assets that are soon to be overdue as well as those that are overdue.

Optionally, employee badges can be used to associate the IT assets to their owners. The system allows the IT managers to define specific asset types and asset pools with user-defined attributes that can be used for reporting and alerting. For instance, a prototype asset can be defined and not allowed to leave the building; laptops with encryption software can be allowed to be checked out and/or loaned; and conference equipment pools may have a longer permissible checkout time.

The software is packaged in an appliance the size of a wireless router and can be simply managed through a Web interface, significantly lowering the total cost of ownership.

By using an easy-to-install set of contactless sensors and the Omnitrol Asset Tracking system, NTT MCL automatically knows where all its tagged assets are and can receive alerts when a tagged asset is away from the property for longer than the specified length of time. Because of the highly configurable architecture of the Omnitrol system, other high-value items such as documents, servers, routers, and printers can also be tracked.

Figure 1. Company Gains

The CFOs The IT Managers
Increase labor productivity Reduce errors and misprocessing
Increase asset and tool utilization Efficiently handle asset check-in and check-out
Reduce capital costs Enable on-time asset maintenance
Protect confidentiality on critical asset Improve operations performance
Reduce labor costs Rapid plug-and-forget deployment
Eliminate wasted time spent locating assets Simple, prepackaged, and integrated system
Enable on-time asset maintenance No backend/database integration required
Cost-effective system with corporate-wide incremental scalability System is scalable from a single zone to multiple zones or multiple locations

David Orain is VP of Marketing for Omnitrol Networks Inc., Santa Clara, CA; 408-919-1110, [email protected].