What is Middleware and How Does it Work?
Today, most business processes have become digitalized, and most organizations have very diverse digital needs.
To fulfill these needs, businesses have to use many different hardware and software products.
Most of these hardware and software were designed separately. They were not necessarily built to work together.
At the same time, organizations need these different hardware and software to work together in order to make digital processes more efficient.
Problem is, how do you make them work harmoniously when they weren’t built to work together?
This is where middleware comes in.
WHAT IS MIDDLEWARE?
There are usually two levels on any device.
The first one is the operating system, which is the low level software whose main role is to manage the device’s resources and control the device’s basic functions.
The second level is the applications that are meant to run on top of the operating system.
These applications expand the functions of the device beyond what is offered by the operating system.
Middleware refers to any behind the scenes software that allows these two levels to communicate and interact with each other.
For instance, middleware will sit between Windows 10 and an office productivity suite.
Aside from the operating system and applications, middleware also helps separate process, applications and software components to exchange information either within the same device, or between multiple devices.
You can compare middleware to a translator helping people who speak different languages understand each other.
In this case, middleware facilitates interoperability between applications running on different frameworks. Middleware does this by providing a standard-based means of data exchange.
This way, the two applications can connect without having to communicate directly.
Some people refer to middleware as plumbing since it connects and passes data between two fundamentally different applications.
Middleware has also been referred to as “software glue”, since it helps “glue” together different software so they can work together.
The term middleware is a bit vague since it does not refer to a specific type of software. Instead, it refers to any software that sits between and links two separate applications.
Middleware includes software like content management systems, application servers, web servers, and other similar tools that support the development and delivery of applications. Middleware started becoming popular in the 80s as a solution for enabling newer applications to work on older systems.
HOW DOES MIDDLEWARE WORK?
Today, businesses rely a lot on network applications which involve enterprise and database systems.
These network applications need to perform many different functions, such as updating orders, messaging customers, facilitating payments, allowing customers to track shipments, and so on.
All these functions require real-time transfer of data between different devices.
In addition, different devices with varying processing power, bandwidth capacities, and screen and visual display capabilities need to access the network.
Middleware steps in to provide a unified means for all these systems to communicate and interact with each other.
To do this, a lot of middleware is cross-language, which means that it is capable of understanding and processing several different operating languages, such as Ruby on Rails, Java, C++, PHP, and so on.
Apart from allowing communication between fundamentally different systems, middleware also performs several other functions.
- Hiding the distributed nature of an application. On the surface, applications appear to be one unified package. Below the surface, however, they are comprised of several interconnected elements running in distributed locations. Middleware helps these different elements work in harmony to provide a unified experience for the user, despite the distributed nature of the application.
- Hiding the heterogeneity of the enterprise. The enterprise is usually made up of different hardware, different operating systems and different communication protocols. Middleware allows these different systems to work together while masking their differences.
- Providing application developers with uniform and standard high-level enterprises that they can use to build applications that can be run on different hardware and operating systems and work with each other.
- Avoiding duplication and enabling compatibility between applications by providing a common framework for performing various general purpose functions.
All in all, middleware helps make application development easier. In order to support application development, middleware uses the following components:
- Database software: Most multi-tier systems will require a database. Middleware acts as the link between the client and the server. It accepts client requests, passes them on to the database server and then passes back the response to the client.
- Application server: This is the part of the application that holds the business logic of the application.
- Portal: This is an interaction tool that is used to provide a selected audience with access to business applications, relevant information, instant messaging, discussion forums, and other company resources.
- Service Oriented Architecture (SOA): This is a framework that is used to easily design, develop and deploy applications. Many types of middleware use SOA with prebuilt services that can be utilized by multiple systems.
- Web server: The role of the web server is to process and deliver client requests. Web servers provide one of the best and most flexible options for the integration of different systems.
USES OF MIDDLEWARE
We have already seen that middleware acts as a link between different software.
But what exactly does it do apart from acting as a conduit between the different software?
Some of the uses of middleware include:
- Transaction management: Middleware can be used to manage and control individual transactions and ensure that any problems do not corrupt the system or database.
- Application server: Middleware can be used to host an API, allowing other applications to access and use the main application’s business logic and processes.
- Security: Middleware can be used to authenticate client programs and confirm that the program and the user behind the program are actually who they claim to be.
- Message queues: Middleware can be used to pass messages between different systems or software. The messages can then trigger a transaction or other action.
- Directory: Middleware can be used as a directory, enabling client programs to locate other services within a distributed enterprise.
- Web server: Middleware can also accept client requests from web browsers and channel them to the main server/database and then deliver the responses to the browsers.
TYPES OF MIDDLEWARE
As I mentioned earlier, the term middleware can be used to refer to any software that sits between two different applications.
As such, there is a wide variety of what counts as middleware.
However, middleware can still be classified into broad categories depending on their particular function. Some of the common types of middleware include:
Message Oriented Middleware (MOM)
This is software infrastructure that allows messages to be sent and received over distributed applications.
Message oriented middleware is one of the most widely used types of middleware. With message oriented middleware, it becomes less complicated to use applications spread over various platforms and working across various operating systems and network protocols.
In addition to enabling the transmission of messages across distributed applications, message oriented middleware also has a queuing mechanism that allows the interaction between the server and the client to happen metachronously in situations where the target node is busy or slow.
This prevents the message from getting misplaced while awaiting to get to the server or client. An example of message oriented middleware is email systems.
Remote Procedure Call (RPC) Middleware
This is a client-server interaction that makes it possible for the functionality of an application to be distributed across multiple platforms.
This type of middleware is a protocol that is used by a local program to request a service from a program located on a remote computer without having particulars of network details.
This type of middleware is most used to execute synchronous data transfers, where the both the client and the server need to be online at the time of the communication.
This type of middleware allows direct access and interaction with a database. Database middleware is the most common and most widely used type of middleware.
It is mostly used by developers as a mechanism to request information from a database hosted either locally or remotely.
A good example of database middleware is the SQL database software.
Application Programming Interface (API)
An API is a set of protocols, tools and definitions for building applications, which allow a secondary application or service to communicate with a primary application or service, without having to know how the primary application or service is being implemented.
Also known as an object request broker, the role of object middleware is to control the communication between objects in distributed computing.
Object middleware allows one computer to make program calls to another through a computer network.
It also allows requests and objects to be sent through an object-oriented system.
Transaction Processing (TP) Middleware
This is a type of middleware whose role is to reinforce the function of electronic transactions.
Transactional middleware does this by controlling transaction apps, pushing database updates related to the transaction and enforcing the business rules and logic of the transaction.
This type of middleware is very handy when it comes building extensive software systems for controlling robot systems.
Robotic middleware helps to manage and control the heterogeneity and complexity of the hardware and software systems that form part of a robot.
This type of middleware provides an integration framework through which operations, executions and runtime services from several apps can be monitored and controlled.
Integration middleware can also be useful in combining data from several different sources into one unified platform where users can access and manipulate the data.
This is a framework that provides the basic structure on which applications for a particular environment can be built.
The application framework acts as a backbone that supports the application. It also provides a server on which the application will run.
Using an application framework makes the application development process a lot simpler.
This is a type of middleware that provides a set of tools which are used to build applications meant to be run in a specific hardware environment.
This type of middleware provides game designers with access to tools that make the game creation process easier.
Game engines utilize tools such as game scripting, physics simulations, and graphics rendering.
Though they might not actually be a type of middleware, enterprise portal servers are also sometimes referred to middleware because they enable a smooth front-end integration.
The main role of portals is to allow interaction between a client device and back end systems.
This is a type of middleware that makes it possible for developers to extract some piece of content without having to know how the system obtains the content.
This type of middleware is commonly used in most content-oriented web-based applications.
IMPORTANCE OF MIDDLEWARE
If you company relies a lot on data, then you might consider implementing middleware so that you can integrate the data across various applications and systems.
Integration makes the flow of data across the various applications a lot easier and allows your company to focus on other important aspects of your business, since you no longer have to spend time on manual processes.
Some of the benefits to be gained by implementing middleware include:
Today, businesses need to deliver services to customers across various platforms, including on the cloud, on mobile and through traditional application platforms.
Delivering services across all these platforms can be a challenge.
At the same time, customers expect a similar user experience regardless of the platform through which they access services.
In order to be able to deliver a seamless user experience, your company’s IT landscape needs to be very agile.
Middleware can help provide this agility. It provides a framework that allows changes to be easily made to business processes.
This way, the business can easily respond and adapt to customer requirements and expectations and deliver new services much faster.
Middleware technology is very useful when it comes to automating business processes.
With middleware, processes such as ordering and product configuration can be automated, leading to time and cost improvements when compared to performing these processes manually.
Members of staff who previously performed these processes can be deployed to other tasks.
Process automation also reduces the delivery time and makes customer interactions a lot simpler, ultimately increasing the total volume of business.
Today’s business landscape has become very competitive.
Businesses need to drastically shorten their product development cycles so that they can bring new, innovative products and services to the market before their competitors. Implementing middleware technology makes the innovation process much easier and faster.
Products and services can be brought to market much faster without an increase in development costs.
For instance, one hotel chain used middleware technology from Oracle to provide users with real-time information about room availability and rates directly on Google Maps.
Portability and Reusability
While the advanced technology applications being released today make it easier to quickly make changes to business processes, some organizations may still rely on some old legacy organizations.
Implementing changes on these old legacy applications can be quite challenging.
However, middleware technology can be used to make these old systems more adaptable to changes.
This makes it easier to use older systems for new applications.
Additionally, middleware technology is very reusable, since it contains common components that can be utilized in multiple environments.
Because of this, an application built on top of certain middleware can be used on multiple platforms, making the application a lot more portable.
Due to the use of common components, developing applications on top of middleware technology means less effort is required to build the application from scratch.
This can result in significant reductions in both development time and project cost.
In addition, the use of middleware to automate business processes can also lead to significant cost savings.
Information management is a crucial aspect of any large organization.
Middleware technology can make information management much easier by providing a framework on which an information management system can be designed, built and deployed.
EXAMPLES OF COMMON MIDDLEWARE
Below are examples of 3 middleware that are commonly used by enterprises.
Red Hat JBoss Enterprise Application Platform
This is a powerful and versatile middleware technology developed by Red Hat Software.
This middleware has a solid architectural foundation, with very low memory requirements and very quick startup times.
The middleware comes with a “migration center” that makes it very easy to move existing applications to this platform.
It also provides a cloud-compatible solution for those who want to make their enterprises more agile.
Red Hat JBoss Enterprise Application Platform also provides very excellent customer support.
Red Hat JBoss Enterprise Application Platform costs $8,000 for a 1 year subscription running on 16 CPU cores. You can also get round the clock assistance and support for an extra $4,000.
The Websphere Application Server is a high performance middleware platform with a plethora of features. Installing and deploying IBM WebSphere is quite simple.
The platform can be used for local, cloud-based and hybrid solutions. The platform is built of strong but flexible architecture that can easily scale as required.
One of the greatest advantages of IBM WebSphere is that it can be integrated with other cloud-based IBM products, such as dashDB SQL database service and Watson artificial intelligence.
A one year subscription of IBM WebSphere inclusive of support will cost about $14,000 per limited use socket.
Oracle’s middleware solution is another very popular and very powerful option for enterprise middleware.
Deploying applications on Oracle WebLogic is easy and hassle-free, which means lower operational costs.
The platform comes with an integration to Oracle’s high performance cross-platform communication architecture, which is christened Enterprise Grid Messaging.
WebLogic also offers hassle-free integration with other Oracle databases and applications.
The price of an Oracle WebLogic license will vary based on the number of processors or number of users.
CHOOSING A MIDDLEWARE PLATFORM
The three examples of middleware we looked at above are some of the most common, but they are not the only ones in the market.
There are several other enterprise middleware solutions.
With so many to choose from, making the right choice can be a bit challenging.
There are many functional and non-functional factors that need to be put into consideration before making the decision, such as development time, interoperability, performance, and so on.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to choosing enterprise middleware.
The right solution will depend upon the applications being deployed by an organization, as well as the organization’s infrastructure.
That said, there are some things to keep in mind when evaluating an enterprise middleware solution. These include:
- Updating the business logic should be easy and fast.
- The middleware solution should offer seamless back end interaction.
- It should be able to offer seamless integration between different platforms running on different architecture.
- Security should be a key consideration. Since middleware will work through the web, there should be a security mechanism to ensure that any secured data passing through web servers cannot get compromised.
- In the case of message oriented middleware, there should be a message encryption feature to prevent communication from being intercepted. In the case of application servers, there should be a mechanism in place to ensure proper authentication.
- The middleware solution should have audit functionality such that all activities performed on the platform can be logged and reported.
The business environment has become very dynamic, creating the need for organizations to integrate previously independent applications and build enterprise-wide information systems.
This integration usually involves getting newer applications to work in harmony with older, legacy applications.
Middleware makes it possible for these different applications to work together without the need to update the older software, which would be very costly.
In addition, in today’s highly competitive business environment, middleware allows businesses to develop and bring new solutions to the market a lot faster.
When choosing a middleware solution, you should make the decision based on your organization’s requirements and the type of infrastructure used by your organization.