October 27, 2008

Having seen what RFID did for his bank, Wells Fargo SVP Mike Russo decided the banking industry should steer the future development of radio frequency identification technology. The San Francisco-based bank, which will become a $1.4 trillion asset institution once it completes its acquisition of Charlotte, N.C.-based Wachovia, has been tracking its computer assets using RFID.

Wells Fargo began replacing bar codes with radio tags on computer assets in January 2007. The first of five data centers had been converted by that August, Russo reports. Thousands of employee laptops have already been tagged, and the contents of its remaining data centers, down to each blade server, are now being tagged. "We're currently deploying RFID for all [midrange computers]," Russo says.

Though Russo acknowledges that Wells Fargo hasn't formally analyzed its return on investment, when asked if his gut tells him that RFID has paid for itself, his reply is, "Absolutely." But, "We weren't looking for this to pay for itself," Russo notes. "We were looking to be much more effective." He declines to identify the bank's RFID technology provider.

According to Russo, radio tagging makes asset verification so much easier that in the future the bank will be able to audit the contents of a data center in days, whereas it used to take six months with bar codes. He points to two benefits that make radio tagging so much quicker: the ease of reading the tags and, more important, that the tag reader also serves as the database for the scanned information.

After you scan bar codes, Russo explains, "It could take five or six months to reconcile bar code data with the information in the database." By contrast, "The handheld RFID scanner can store the entire asset database within it," he adds. "You only have to be within [transmitter] range" of a radio-tagged item for it to be read, and you can reconcile any discrepancies instantly, as they arise.

RFID tags also improve security and business continuity. When someone leaves a Wells Fargo data center with a laptop, for example, the security guard can immediately tell if that person is the laptop's owner because the owner's photo, associated with that laptop's tag, pops up on the guard's screen, Russo relates. And information associated with a device's tag can trigger alerts that warn the bank when a vendor intends to stop supporting the system so the bank can plan to replace it, he adds.

Reflecting Russo's pioneering work with RFID technology, as well as growing industry awareness of the need to track computer equipment more closely, Russo holds a new functional title at Wells Fargo: SVP of automated ID technologies. RFID, he notes, is a 20-year-old technology whose time has come partly because it now is affordable. "[Tag] readers that were $2,500 now are $900, and the tags that were $5 now are a buck-fifty," Russo says.

Within the Financial Services Technology Consortium (New York), Russo says, "I originated the special interest group for RFID to mobilize banks to develop a set of standards we could jointly present to our hardware suppliers. This will enable them to pre-tag the assets we purchase following our model for naming, tag placement, tag styles, etc. Additionally it will allow us to leverage the RFID industry suppliers to work with us on development of new solutions geared toward our needs." (See related sidebar.)

Asked about Wells Fargo's future applications of RFID, such as tagging cash bags that are sent to branches, Russo says, "I think it's definitely something we'll do once we get past this first phase of asset tracking."