VeriSign to manage RFID 'root' server

VeriSign Inc. has been awarded a contract to manage a key component of a coming global distribution network that uses electronic product code (EPC) technology, according to a joint announcement by VeriSign and EPCglobal Inc., a non-profit organization.

The contract, for an undisclosed amount, assigns VeriSign the job of designing and operating the Object Naming Service (ONS) root directory, which will link RFID tags attached to shipping palates or individual products to stored data about the tagged items, said Sue Hutchinson, product manager at EPCglobal.

EPCGlobal and Verisign made the announcement at the National Retail Federation Annual Convention and Expo in New York City.

EPCs are unique numbers, akin to automobile license plates, that identify items in shipping cases and pallets. Using RFID technology, the EPC information can be broadcast to handheld and mounted RFID readers, which track the items as they move through an organization's supply chain, from manufacturing floor to store shelf, Hutchinson said.

The ONS will function like the U.S. Department of Motor Vehicles for companies that use EPCs to track merchandise, relating the unique EPC number to information that describes the product, she said.

ONS is key to the commercialization of the EPC network, which was developed by a public-private initiative coordinated by the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Without it, trading partners using EPC can only transmit product information directly using "point to point" communications, Hutchinson said.

In design, ONS is very similar to the DNS (Domain Name System), which links requests for user-friendly domain names to numeric IP (Internet Protocol) addresses, said Jon Brendsel, director of EPC Network Services at VeriSign.

That made VeriSign, which manages the DNS root servers for the .com and .net Internet domains, a natural candidate to run the ONS root server, Hutchinson said.

"They have a long term standing in the community, with the knowledge and capabilities to support ONS," she said.

VeriSign beat out a number of other competitors to win control of the ONS root server, though EPCglobal would not comment on which or how many other organizations submitted proposals to manage ONS.

VeriSign will run ONS from six globally distributed resolution servers, akin to the servers it now uses for its managed DNS services, Brendsel said.

EPCglobal will pay VeriSign to build out and operate the ONS infrastructure. EPCglobal, in turn, will charge subscription fees from companies and organizations interested in using the EPC Network, Brendsel said.

As EPC deployments grow and ONS traffic increases, VeriSign will consider moving ONS to its high-availability ATLAS (Advanced Transaction Lookup and Signalling system) platform, which is used to manage the .com and .net root servers. VeriSign and EPCglobal estimate that the growing use of EPCs and RFID technology could produce billions of ONS requests per day within five years, Brendsel and Hutchinson said.

VeriSign currently receives about 10 billion requests a day for the .com and .net domains, Brendsel said.

Growth will be driven, in part, by recent edicts from larger organizations such as the U.S. Department of Defense and retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., that suppliers use the new technology, Brendsel said.

VeriSign is also planning a number of managed services, including a "managed ONS" service, that they will market to companies interested in outsourcing elements of their EPC operations, he said.

Real demand for such services may be years off, but will grow as EPCs slowly replace bar code technology, creating a new worldwide network of intelligent objects, Brendsel said.

"Think of DNS in 1993. This is going to be big," he said.

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