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Middleware provides useful connectivity between applications, but does it need to be modernized in the age of cloud computing?


A Brief Guide to Middleware: Past, Present, and Future

Posted by Angela Davis on September 19, 2023
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Middleware was developed as a solution to bridge applications and operating systems. As technology continues to evolve, new systems need the capability to communicate and share data with legacy applications to optimize the use of both.

Middleware software has evolved alongside other technologies, from quite simple solutions that prolonged the usability of outdated infrastructure to cloud middleware technologies. But, is middleware still the best solution for application integration? 

What is middleware?

A simple middleware definition would be that the software connects applications, operating systems, and development environments to allow incompatible applications to share information and resources. Through communication and data management, end users can access apps, software tools, and databases that would otherwise be unavailable. 

Middleware integrates the processes of different software apps to provide a solution to interoperability issues. The best middleware architectures work between frontend interfaces and backend runtime applications to offer end-users a seamless experience. 

What are the benefits of using middleware tools?

Middleware applications were designed to solve the difficulties caused by enterprises using numerous different systems. The benefits it can bring are why middleware is important to so many businesses. 

1. Connectivity

Middleware provides connectivity between user applications and resources like databases or other backend sources. This allows more modern software to be connected to older resource pools.

This can include connecting legacy applications to cloud-based resources or providing connectivity for end-users via mobile apps and internet-connected devices.

This connectivity can save on IT costs for businesses, as it supports the continued use of legacy applications and removes the need to replace systems, which can be expensive and risky.

A graphic showing how OpenLegacy can transform core/legacy system assets using APIs.

2. Abstraction

One of the primary middleware functions is to operate between software components, hardware, and/or systems. Because of this, it provides a layer of abstraction that simplifies the user experience. 

Complicated communication and application integrations can be masked with an intuitive user interface (UI). As well as improving user experience, this can free up developers to focus on application logic instead of infrastructure details. 

An example of this is that middleware can recognize language or geolocation from a client’s browser. It can then prioritize information relevant to location when making requests to backend databases. 

3. Load balancing

Middleware architecture also supports load balancing of existing systems. It can handle processes like distribution requests, session affinity, and health monitoring of backend servers. They can scale resources dynamically (vertically or horizontally) to maintain high availability. 

Load balancing promotes agile DevOps and CI/CD (continuous integration and continuous delivery) and gives organizations flexibility for growth. 

Additionally, middleware functions include concurrent processing, meaning it can manage situations where two or more clients request or update the same resources simultaneously. This saves time and money by reducing duplication and other data errors. 

4. Security

As an information gatekeeper, middleware helps organizations add enterprise-grade encryption along with other security measures. An extra, updated layer of security can protect even the most ancient and monolithic backend resources. 

Enterprise application integration middleware accomplishes this feat through a variety of means. The most common are single sign-on (SSO) authentication or role-based access control (RBAC). For transmission, data is protected with transport layer security (TLS), which encrypts information between endpoints. 

Examples of middleware software

With many different types of middleware developed over the years, there are plenty of application and use case examples to explain how middleware works. 

Messaging middleware

Message-oriented middleware (MOM) is software that supports sending and receiving messages between distributed applications. It lets you deploy communication apps over a wide network of platforms, operating systems, and network protocols. 

With MOM, asynchronous communication can happen between components that do not have direct, real-time connections. 

A common type of MOM is a message queue. This type of middleware stores and manages messages until they’re delivered to help systems deal with demand and provide ample scalability.

Database middleware

Also known as database access middleware, database middleware facilitates the connection between front-end applications and databases. Integrations simplify access so developers can focus on other areas of the application. 

Database middleware is commonly used with backend SQL databases and allows you to connect different programming languages. For example, the Java Database Connectivity (JDBC) is a Java Database API that queries SQL databases.

Object middleware

Also known as an object request broker (ORB), object middleware allows applications to send objects and interact with software components. It enables communications between objects in different distributed systems and different languages.

ORB middleware helps developers build flexible communication between processes and systems in various physical or virtual environments to provide operational flexibility for enterprise applications. 

Object middleware also promotes a heterogeneous system, allowing microservices like Kubernetes containers to run on separate servers or networks. 

Transaction middleware

Middleware graphic.

Image source

Transaction processing middleware supports the managing of transactions in a distributed environment. It helps maintain data consistency by executing multiple operations as one coherent transaction. 

Transaction middleware can also handle errors or failures to prevent a loss of data integrity (which is especially important in financial transactions), as well as incorporate authentication middleware for extra security. 

When a payment is processed, the movement of money from one account to another involves multiple software components, including the client browser or mobile app. 

Transaction middleware ensures all transaction events take place successfully—or that none of them do. 

Cloud middleware

Cloud middleware is a software platform that connects cloud users with servers, databases, and other backend resources. 

Working in abstraction, clients don’t directly connect or interact with cloud middleware. Everything is handled seamlessly, providing additional functionality for end users. Cloud middleware can also add capabilities such as concurrent processing, transaction management, and object communication. 

Web middleware

Web middleware is also known as HTTP or web services middleware. This technology is used in web application development and facilitates functionality between operating systems and applications. Developers can enlist web service functions for many different use cases.

Web middleware handles HTTP requests and responses for both client-side and server-side components. This allows for a modular approach and code reusability. Web services middleware streamlines the development of applications and APIs because programmers can quickly connect services as they’re needed.

Some of these services include authorization, parsing, validation, error handling, logging, and request tracing. The latter helps IT professionals with debugging and provides an audit trail for performance monitoring.  

What is the future of middleware?

The term ‘middleware’ was first coined in the late 1960s with the idea to build components or services that could homogenize the use of early organizational systems, such as servers and mainframe computers. 

This idea helped grow the client-server model of enterprise information systems. Effectively, less powerful machines would connect to more capable computers. The server side could then handle the heavy lifting while allowing the client side to maintain high usability. 

However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the technology to facilitate communication between client and server devices was finally developed enough for use. 


Enterprise service bus graphic.

Image source

Until a decade or so ago, the main middleware software for enterprise application integration was the enterprise service bus (ESB). This technology serves as the hub for service-oriented architecture (SOA) and is a way to connect business applications and encode application logic. Custom code is often written using simple object access protocol (SOAP) to connect software components and communicate. 

However, there are issues with ESB solutions, such as the way that these types of protocols can stifle flexibility. Additionally, the middleware technologies involved are rapidly aging as the pace of technological development increases. The narrow platforms now need a lot of work to modernize and update functionality. 

Furthermore, many enterprises find themselves maintaining services from multiple vendors—which kind of defeats the goal of simplifying heterogeneous systems! 

Another drawback with ESBs is that the developers and specialists most familiar with them are also aging and reaching retirement age, meaning businesses must spend more time and money to recruit them.

Today, most middleware technology is built on integration servers, such as RESTful APIs, SOA, JSON, and others, in an attempt to address these issues.

Nonetheless, many organizations are still weighed down by legacy systems or outdated middleware that they’re afraid to tamper with. It’s time for businesses to break free of these chains and explore alternatives to middleware like OpenLegacy’s integration as a service solution.

How OpenLegacy compares to middleware technologies

OpenLegacy’s hybrid integration platform is currently ushering in what we like to think of as the “Third Age of Modernization”. The solution leverages microservices and cloud-native architectures. With OpenLegacy, you can inject new life into your legacy systems. 

By using functional, flexible microservices instead of code-heavy, bloated middleware, businesses can accelerate the integration of new software and services. This allows for the continued use of long-standing, legacy infrastructure while also supporting the addition of cutting-edge technologies to your tech stack. With microservices, you have unlimited scalability to build and integrate devices, applications, and platforms in one place.

OpenLegacy empowers your team to build APIs rapidly and as needed, with our hybrid integration platform promoting the organizational agility required to successfully work within a DevOps infrastructure. 


FAQs about middleware

Why is middleware important?

Middleware was developed to bridge the gaps between technologies. It simplified software design and development, reducing the coding required to connect systems and facilitating communication and data sharing between frontend and backend components. 

What are some of the challenges of implementing middleware?

Implementing middleware adds one or more layers of complexity to your system processes. The exact number will depend on the communication protocols, data formats, and architectures involved, but the more endpoints there are, the more complexities you’ll have to manage.

Another challenge is planning/adaptability. With normal enterprise infrastructure, the frontend and backend must be updated dependent on the other. Middleware solutions take things up a notch because their compatibility is affected by devices going in both directions regarding data transmission. This can slow down the implementation and deployment of middleware.

What are some of the limitations of middleware?

Because of the added layers of complexity, middleware can throttle performance. This is because the middle layer requires processing resources, so IT professionals will need to plan for adequate performance head space. 

While middleware is less complicated than the methods that came before it, it does still require learning, so the benefits you gain from a middleware implementation will be limited by the understanding and expertise of your team. 

Poorly designed or implemented middleware can also become a “single point of failure”. This phrase is a nightmare for any developer, as these types of bottlenecks can have disastrous consequences for business continuity.

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