Everyone who owns a computer or other IT-related device knows what software is. Software is what makes computers, smartphones, and tablets function. Software examples include Microsoft Word, Google Chrome, Adobe Photoshop, and Firefox. As you can see, these are popular, well-known software titles.

But have you ever heard of middleware? If not, get ready to have your knowledge base expanded because this article is all about middleware, including what it is, middleware's origin, what kinds of middleware exist, how to choose the best middleware platform, and why it's so crucial for both app development and cloud computing.

In fact, considering how vital cloud computing and app development are today, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with middleware.

So, let’s get started by answering the question: “what is middleware?”

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What Is Middleware? An Overview

Middleware is software that provides a bridge between operating systems and the applications that run on them, behaving as a discreet transition layer. So, middleware acts as the “middleman,” facilitating communication, bridging the gaps between tools, databases, and applications, and ultimately providing unified services to end-users.

Middleware is also known as “plumbing” since it connects two applications so they can pass data back and forth like through a pipeline. It’s especially useful for organizations that employ containerized or multi-cloud environments.

The Origin of Middleware 

Although the first reference to middleware was in 1968 in a report following a NATO software engineering conference in Germany, it wasn’t officially introduced until the 1980s as a means of linking legacy systems to modern applications.

There are two broad middleware categories:

Enterprise Middleware

This form of middleware connects enterprise applications or software components. Enterprise middleware exists as a layer of software that lies between the operating system and the applications that run on either side of a computer network. Enterprise middleware typically benefits complex, distributed business-related software apps.

Platform Middleware

Platform middleware, on the other hand, connects varied application architectures. If firms merge or make a third-party acquisition, they may discover that they are using multiple structures. Middleware supports these types of structures and offers three different interconnection arenas:

  • Development environment arenas
  • Production arenas
  • Test arenas 

Middleware transfers the data in all of these arenas from application to application and between databases and files as well.

What Is Middleware: What Kinds of Middleware Are There?

Since there are many different intermediary needs, middleware comes in many forms. Here are ten of the most common middleware types. Note there are at least a dozen classifications.

Message-Oriented Middleware 

This middleware infrastructure supports message receiving and sending over distributed applications. It translates and transforms messages between applications and routs them, so they arrive at the correct components and in the proper order. In addition, it simplifies creating apps that cover many different operating systems and network protocols.

Object Middleware

This middleware, also known as an object request broker, manages communication between objects.

Remote Procedure Call (RPC) Middleware

This middleware lets an application trigger a procedure in another application as if they were both parts of the same application running on the same machine.

Application Programming Interface (API) Middleware

This middleware provides tools that developers can use to create, manage, and expose APIs for their applications, allowing other developers to access them.

Database Middleware

This kind of middleware simplifies direct access and interaction with back-end databases and usually comes in the form of a SQL database server.

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Transaction Middleware

This middleware encompasses web application servers and transaction processing monitors. In addition, it supports data transaction executions across distributed networks.

Portals

Portal middleware creates interactions between the user’s machine and the back-end services and systems. It offers tools and resources for connectivity and integration from different, yet related, applications.

Robotics Middleware

As the name implies, robotics middleware simplifies the integration process of robotic hardware, software, and firmware among multiple manufacturers and locations.

Embedded Middleware

Embedded middleware acts as a go-between for real-time operating systems and embedded applications.

Content-Centric Middleware

This middleware lets users abstract specific content without having to consider its source, handled via a simple provide/consume abstraction.

What Is Middleware: How to Choose a Middleware Platform

Consider the following ten factors when you’re choosing a middleware platform:

  • Community: Does the middleware have any active public forums, and do they provide extra content for the platform?
  • Company support: What kind of support will the manufacturer offer during business hours? What about after hours? Also, is there a direct helpline, e-mail, on-site support, etc.?
  • Connectors: Does the platform provide adapters for B2B products like SAP or Salesforce?
  • Costs: Figure out the platform’s total cost, factoring in licenses, maintenance, necessary extra products, connectors, etc.
  • Expansion ability: Does the platform have extensions? What standards do the interfaces use?
  • Flexibility: Can you customize the middleware to meet your company’s specific needs?
  • Functionality: What types of features does it include?
  • License type. The available types of licenses and subscription models. Are future updates free?
  • Maintainability: How do you manage the product? For example, does it have a graphical user interface for monitoring the services?
  • Usability: How complex is the platform to install? Do you need additional tools? What type of usability does the development environment offer?

What Is Middleware: How Middleware Works

You may be wondering how middleware succeeds at its role. After all, acting as an intermediary between different platforms and protocols sounds like a tall order! However, middleware accomplishes this by using common messaging frameworks like the simple object access protocol (SOAP), JavaScript object notation (JSON), extensible markup language (XML), , and representational state transfer (REST). Middleware also employs web services that enable different applications and services to communicate. Also, middleware usually provides services that allow components written in multiple languages like C++, Java, PHP, and Python, to communicate with each other.

In addition, middleware typically features these services to make developers’ jobs easier:

  • Securing connections and data transfers
  • Configuring and controlling connections and integrations
  • Dynamically managing traffic across distributed systems

To sum it up, middleware:

  • Disguises distributed and disjointed networks
  • Creates homogeneity from a diverse collection of software applications
  • Provides developers with a consistent, uniform interface that supports application development, usability, and interoperability
  • Offers a set of general-purpose services that allow applications to function together while preventing systems from duplicating efforts

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Why Is Middleware Important to Cloud Computing?

Most people agree that the cloud is fantastic. It allows users from disparate architectures and infrastructures to work together, running programs, processing data, and other IT-related functions. However, this type of universal access doesn’t come easy. It’s a complex process, bringing together all these disparate elements.

Fortunately, that’s exactly what middleware was made for. Middleware supports a variety of application environments and manages the complex tasks of cross-platform processing. To put it a different way, middleware and cloud computing are made for each other.

What Role Does Middleware Play in App Development?

Today’s business apps are designed to run on-premises, at scale, and across many cloud platforms. Thus, developers and programmers require an application environment with unified foundational capabilities. In other words, to build multi-platform applications, designers need a “workshop” that has the same characteristics. Middleware is the solution for assembling that kind of environment.

There are four layers of capabilities.

  • The Container Layer: This layer manages the application’s life cycle delivery aspect in a standardized, uniform manner. It also offers DevOps, continuous integration/continuous deployment capabilities (CI/CD), container management, and service mesh capabilities.
  • The Runtimes Layer: This layer features the custom code’s execution environments. In addition, middleware offers messaging for faster data transfer, lightweight runtimes and frameworks, and in-memory caching for quicker data access.
  • The Integration Layer: This layer provides services that connect custom and purchased apps. It also offers Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) assets via integration, messaging, and APIs to build functioning systems. The integration layer can also deliver data/event streaming, API management, and in-memory data cache and database services.
  • The Process Automation and Decision Management Layer: This final layer adds critical intelligence, decision management, optimization, and automation.

There’s also an additional layer, separate yet part of the overall environment: tooling. Tooling lets teams build applications with preset templates and containers. It also makes it simpler to share code and engage in joint development efficiently. Tooling supports coherent, consistent application development and delivery experience both on-premises and in the cloud.

These five elements combine to form a very effective app development resource, and these days, where app demand is higher than ever, developers need every advantage they can get.

When you consider the number of platforms, operating systems, devices (both new and legacy), cloud environments, and protocols available, it becomes clear that middleware is an essential part of any developer’s toolbox. Middleware is the glue that holds all these disparate elements together.

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About the Author

John TerraJohn Terra

John Terra lives in Nashua, New Hampshire and has been writing freelance since 1986. Besides his volume of work in the gaming industry, he has written articles for Inc.Magazine and Computer Shopper, as well as software reviews for ZDNet. More recently, he has done extensive work as a professional blogger. His hobbies include running, gaming, and consuming craft beers. His refrigerator is Wi-Fi compliant.

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