When it comes to your data center or colocation facility, choosing the right type of RFID technology is a matter of finding the best option for long-term superior outcomes. In this article, we take a look at passive and active RFID tags, deep dive, into their functions and specs, and underscore the reasons active RFID tags are a superior solution to achieve your desired use case outcomes.

Data centers with hundreds to thousands of critical assets often use radio-frequency identification (RFID) sensor tags to track the location and monitor the environmental conditions around those physical assets. There are two popular categories of RFID sensors: passive (such as barcodes) and active RFID tags. Deciding which to deploy in your data center or colocation facility is important since they differ in performance and cost. Let’s dive in.

Passive vs Active RFID Tags At a Glance

Passive RFID and active RFID sensor tags both use radio signals for data center asset tracking. However, they have several key differences—they’re built differently, which in turn affects their functionality and suitable use cases.

Active tags include their own battery, while passive tags lack a power source and rely on a separate source of power to be activated.

We are often surprised by how many experienced data center operators and IT leaders do not understand the actual differences between Active and Passive RFID and the actual impact one technology can have over the other in data centers. Typically after a deeper conversation about their unique data center use cases, the proverbial light bulb goes on. Here are some common advantages of Active RFID sensors for data centers:

1) Longer Read Range: Active RFID tags have their own power source and can transmit signals over a longer range, up to 100 meters or more, compared to passive RFID tags, which have a read range of up to 15 meters. This makes active RFID ideal for tracking assets in large data centers.

2) Real-Time Intelligence: Active RFID tags can provide real-time location information, making it easier to quickly locate assets within the data center. Passive RFID provides what is called “Point-in-Time” data which is outdated data once an asset is moved or a condition changes which happens often in data centers. Active RFID is really real-time because the tag beacons its location and condition every 10-30 seconds automatically. Passive is relatively real-time only at the moment the data is captured. Passive RFID data can be misleading when critical decisions have to be made based on the accuracy of the data. DCIMs rely on the accuracy of the data it receives from the rack level.

3) Greater Data Transmission Capabilities: Active RFID tags can transmit more data than passive RFID tags, providing additional information about the asset, such as temperature, humidity, and vibration readings.

4) Improved Accuracy: Active RFID tags can provide higher accuracy in tracking assets within the data center, due to their ability to transmit a stronger signal.

The onboard power source in active RFID tags enables them to run more complex electronics and send information over much longer distances. Compare it to how a cell phone sends signals to the communications tower, thanks to the phone’s battery. For instance, RF Code’s wire-free active RFID sensors can transmit information about assets' locations, immediate ambient conditions, and other critical information throughout your data center or colocation facility.

passive vs active rfid tags at a data center

Because passive tags lack a battery, they act more like mirrors, only reflecting what they receive. The reader initiates communications; limited data is sent back over short distances. It works less like a cell phone, and more like a contactless bank card or a bar code that can only respond to a nearby reader.

Passive RFID tracking, therefore, requires your team to manually scan tags. By contrast, active RFID tracking is constantly reporting information.

It is not uncommon for data centers to be initially skeptical about justifying the ROI of Active RFID compared to Passive RFID. After all, Passive is a less expensive technology. They need to see it to believe it. That is why many have run head-to-head tests pitting RF Code’s Active RFID technology against various passive RFID options. In 9 out of 10 tests, RF Code’s Active RFID system can meet 99% of all data center use cases. Passive less than 50%. One of the largest banks in the world stopped their head-t0-head tests halfway through the pilot program because they saw enough to know that passive RFID is not the right asset tracking and management solution for data centers. The banking giant recognized that the long-term benefits of battery-powered tags automating the continuous collection of 99% accurate asset data and enriching their DCIMs in real-time were worth the initial cost difference.

Passive RFID is essentially just a scanning device. Active RFID can serve as the foundation for a more comprehensive asset management solution, providing asset life cycle management, environmental monitoring, and power monitoring. Further, the longer range of active RFID means that tags can report from any corner of the entire data center or colocation facility—without sending employees around to scan hundreds (or thousands) of items. Just think about the efficiency to be gained when it comes time to prepare and conduct audits. Active RFID conducts audits every 10-30 seconds without any need for time-intensive resources.

A Deep Dive Into RFID Technology for Data Centers: How It Works

Data centers are busy places, with hardware moving around often. Losing track of expensive equipment with customer data poses a serious problem—and manual asset tracking is simply too slow and inaccurate.

Passive RFID

Passive RFID hinges on proximity: how close tags are to (and how strong of a signal they reflect to) a reader. After tagging servers with passive RFID tags or barcodes, you can count the inventory of an entire rack simply by passing through with a handheld reader. The reader can scan several tags at once, making it faster to see what you have and what’s lost. Assuming you have the time and resources available and no mistakes are made. This is a manual process to an extent. Staff must pace the halls scanning; while it reduces time spent from hours to mere minutes, those are still minutes workers could spend on value-added tasks instead. Oftentimes, the IT staff must work late hours or on weekends to complete this time-intensive task. Multiply that cost 4-6 times per year in preparation and execution of regulatory audits.

Active RFID

Active RFID whittles down this wasted time even more—while boosting accuracy. Active RFID tags automatically send information, thanks to their onboard batteries. The information feeds more accurate asset intelligence into your data center infrastructure management (DCIM) system, providing continuous data on location, lifecycle, power, and environmental conditions in real-time.

A diagram of passive vs. active rfid tags

Data centers and colocation facilities that embrace more effective technology like RF Code’s active tags will simply perform better. They’ll lose fewer servers, maintain safer environmental conditions, comply with SLAs, and empower their employees to dedicate their time to more value-added tasks.

Why Active RFID Tags Are Superior to Passive For Data Centers

We’ve established that any RFID is better than a wholly manual tracking strategy. But when it comes to deciding between active vs passive RFID tags, which wins the day?

While both types of RFID tags have their benefits, active RFID tags always come out on top for data centers and colocation facilities. They’re more efficient, accurate, and cost-effective than their passive counterparts in the long run.

Passive RFID tags may have a lower upfront cost—but this is easily offset by eliminating human errors and improving accuracy to 99.9%. If we’re talking about a data center’s bottom line, active RFID can remove more risks and empower real-time decision-making based on a much higher degree of trust in the accuracy and timeliness of the data being collected at the rack level.

The accuracy and efficiency of active RFID mean you lose fewer servers and spend less employee time chasing after assets. And the ambient monitoring functionality saves money by preventing accidents and curtailing unnecessary cooling. In fact, in a data center with 1,500 racks hosting 20 servers each, RF Code’s Asset Management solution was able to save a technology customer $1.4 million over three years when compared to passive RFID solutions like bar code scanners.

Did You Know? Real-time asset lifecycle management with RF Code’s active RFID tags can protect expensive equipment while increasing utilization and regulatory compliance. The sensors continuously monitor the environment of each rack, collecting data on power use that help you enhance operations and accountability.

In certain contexts other than data centers and colocation facilities—such as assembly line scanning of products in manufacturing—passive RFID might make sense. However, active RFID wins in spaces with thousands of expensive assets that constantly move between multiple areas.

passive vs. active rfid tags

Use Cases: Active RFID Tags in Action

Companies are already experiencing the benefits of active tags. For example, the mercantile exchange in Chicago saves $60,000 per year and has near-perfect audit accuracy thanks to RF Code active RFID tags.

The company deployed more than 12,000 RF Code IT asset tags that feed real-time data to multiple teams, providing transparency for quick decision-making. This drastically cut the time and effort necessary to manage 12,000 assets—spread across 2,000 racks globally—improving efficiency and saving money.

Colocation operator Cyxtera saves $2.9 million per year as a result of the RF Code Active RFID system. They’ve reduced electricity and cooling costs for multiple data centers hosting tens of thousands of racks.

An RF Code pilot, within two days, found hot spots and fixes. Now real-time data lets Cyxtera’s BMS automatically respond to the environment. This environmental monitoring lets Cyxtera safely adjust temperature and humidity controls for individual servers at a moment’s notice. They made back their initial investment in under a year—and have saved much more since.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Costs

RFID tags have proven valuable for many industries, including data centers and colocation facilities. However, they’re different in their costs. While many might think to go with passive tags because they’re cheaper in the short-term, they will cost you over time. On the other hand, active tags have a higher upfront cost—that is soon paid back in massive accuracy and consistency gains.

Active tags from RF Code boast other advantages. The sensors can track a wide range of useful conditions, such as the power consumption, temperature, and pressure of each individual tagged server and rack. The batteries enable continuous real-time reporting that feeds into data center software. And their range extends much farther than their passive counterparts, eliminating the need for employees to walk around scanning assets.

RF Code Solutions Can Help Optimize Your Data Center

At the end of the day, active RFID improves your bottom line. It cuts unnecessary labor hours, cooling, and redundant equipment purchases, and allows faster, more accurate audits and better compliance.

Real-time asset tracking gives data center and colocation facility managers an edge. RF Code’s CenterScape software works in tandem with tags to provide unprecedented visibility of all tagged servers anywhere in the data center —and their surrounding conditions—automatically in real-time. You’ll know the minute something goes awry (as something inevitably will), and can quickly thwart issues or solve problems before they escalate into a crisis.

As the leading provider of RFID and asset monitoring and management solutions, RF Code works with over 200 companies in the Fortune 500—including over half of its financial services, healthcare, technology, and telecommunications companies. Contact us today to discuss your unique data center RFID use cases.