Information Technology Demystified
A Report from the UniForum Technical Steering Committee
Each month, the TSC examines a key emerging technology. This time, we evaluate
the capabilities of middleware.
The Muddle of Middleware
An important buzzword in the information technology vocabulary to emerge
over the past few years is middleware. It has become a catchall for
a large, sometimes confusing assortment of client/server technologies and
has served as a rubric for all the products claiming to facilitate distributed
The term is subject to almost as many definitions as there are IT practitioners
and pundits. One popular definition comes from Orfali, Harkey and Edwards
in Essential Client/Server Survival Guide (Van Nostrand Reinhold,
1994), who define it as the "/" in "client/server";
that is, the in-between stuff that connects the two. Another--more skeptical--definition
comes from Mark Hanner of the Meta Group, quoted in InfoWorld (Dec.
25, 1995), who labels it "the thing that comes between you and your
data." By any definition, middleware is a collection of important technologies
that are much in the spirit of open systems.
For convenience, contemporary middleware can be divided into three categories:
data-oriented middleware, intended to permit the client application
to be written without regard for the physical location of the data; message-oriented
middleware (MOM), for passing messages reliably between applications;
and request-oriented middleware, for enabling distributed applications
to execute transactions and make requests of one another.
The key component of data middleware is the database management system (DBMS).
Most of the popular relational DBMSs either function directly as a conduit
for distributed data access or, through additional data gateway products,
are extended to enable remote data access. Stored structured query language
(SQL) procedures are also a form of middleware, through which a client can
request the retrieval and transmission of routinely accessed data for local
There are many different approaches to data-oriented middleware. Microsoft's
ODBC and the related X/Open CLI interface allow considerable database independence
and transparency in accessing one or more server DBMSs from a client program.
Tools for data replication propagate changes in a master database to clients
and data hubs to synchronize local copies of the data with the master copy.
Complete data files can be copied automatically via managed file transfer
products. Soon, DBMSs will provide distributed update capability using middleware,
although today this functionality is still problematic.
The main advantage of data-oriented middleware is that applications require
only minimal changes (if any) to access remote data. For the most part,
the infrastructure required to move and access data is external to the program.
While this simplifies the life of the programmer, it leads to one of the
potential disadvantages of this class of products--the operational complexity
of synchronizing data movement and the related difficulty of guaranteeing
data consistency when something goes wrong. This approach moves the complexity
from programmers to database administrators and operations staff.
Message-oriented middleware includes protocol-independent messaging and
message queuing. Many MOM products guarantee reliable delivery of messages
and queued data. MOM permits applications to be designed around the concept
of filling queued requests and makes possible the implementation of informal
Request-oriented middleware includes products for transaction processing
(TP), remote procedure calling (RPC) and object request brokering (ORB).
The use of a TP monitor enables a distributed application to provide transactional
integrity through two-phase commitment and preservation of the so-called
- Atomicity: the transaction succeeds or fails as a unit.
- Consistency: the results of executing a transaction are always consistent.
- Isolation: transactions are independent of one another.
- Durability: a committed transaction is permanent and must survive a
The RPC paradigm allows applications to request remote services as though
they were local procedures. Object request brokers permit applications to
make requests of one another transparently. One RPC product, the Distributed
Computing Environment (DCE), also supplies the security, directory and time
services required in a distributed applications environment.
The use of a request-oriented middleware product permits applications to
be written according to the request/response paradigm. This application
architecture fits well with graphical user interfaces and facilitates the
migration to object technology. In fact, many organizations are creating
informal object structures for common business objects and system services
using existing TP monitors or RPC products so they may be in a position
to exploit object technology as it evolves in CORBA-compliant and COM/OLE
environments. They are using ORB middleware to position themselves to take
advantage of component technology when it becomes widespread.
The principles behind middleware are to permit applications to move freely
within the computing infrastructure and the enterprise, and to insulate
applications from underlying technologies, particularly the complexities
of communications, networking and differing operating system application
programming interfaces (API)s. Both principles are highly consistent with
the aims of open systems.
The location independence provided by middleware permits applications to
be deployed on the bases of performance, reliability, economics and business
concerns. Applications become free to migrate from server to client; from
server to middle tier and back; from desktop to server; from server to server;
and, in the extreme case of mobile applications, to wander geographically.
In the isolation role, middleware is a strong technology for fostering platform
independence. Middleware permits the business logic of an application to
be written independent of the operating system context in which it executes.
Middleware shields the application from knowing how it has been invoked
and how it must return results.
A future vision for middleware builds on this open systems role to make
possible an object-oriented architecture in which cooperating business objects
make requests of other objects and provide services for one another. In
this vision, today's middleware will ally with object technology to provide
complete location transparency and platform isolation. In the future, middleware
will provide the software sockets and backplane into which component applications
can be fitted to build new application systems for the enterprise, thus
ushering in the era of practical reuse and component technology.
How far off is that vision? In some environments, it can be realized in
limited fashion today; some people claim to be selling it. In fact, it is
close enough that many application development teams are building their
systems now--using available middleware products--with the expectation that
these applications will evolve into the object-oriented paradigm. The benefit
of middleware to these teams comes not so much in the specific product features
currently available, but rather in the ability to structure their applications
to be service-oriented and event-driven.
Middleware is already an important open systems technology. If it is applied
according to open systems principles and with an eye to the future, the
benefits of middleware may include:
- Increased longevity for applications.
- Reduced response time to changes in the business and technical environment.
- The ability to make continuous improvement in the computing platform
and development tools without impacting applications.
- Reduced development cost through reuse at multiple levels.
- Increased programmer productivity.
- Improved quality of application software: reliability, availability,
throughput, accuracy, maintainability and manageability.
- Increased application adaptability.
- Increased application scalability.
Like all other open technologies, middleware must be applied with caution.
Users must be certain that any middleware product used is standards-based
and truly open to avoid lock-in and dependency on proprietary interfaces.
Derek Kaufman is middleware manager for Levi Strauss &
Co. in San Francisco and a member of the UniForum Technical Steering Committee.
He can be reached at email@example.com.