There's something comforting about neighborhood hardware stores--something evocative of father-son projects on Sunday afternoons in autumn. Technically speaking, the thousands of Ace Hardware stores that dot the country are anything but refugees from Mayberry RFD. They're actually sophisticated end users of local computing power, and they want to be able to use the Web to place orders with their supplier, Ace Hardware of Oakbrook, Ill.
This business of linking the Web to the rest of the enterprise has become central to the jobs of IS staff. The demand for access has sent them scurrying for middleware solutions to connect Web technology to relational databases, legacy systems, and the rest of the IT infrastructure.
The bad news is that there are dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of middleware vendors vying for the role of universal Web-to-enterprise link provider. It's a product and technology explosion on the scale of a minor Big Bang, and it's every bit as chaotic and confusing as its cosmological cousin.
Middle of the road
Defining the technology is harder than you'd think. In general, middleware can be said to be the glue (or logic) that lies between the client and the server. Invisibly to the user, it deals with all the grim stuff of incompatible operating systems and file structures.
Middleware comes in five different types: database middleware, message-oriented middleware (MOM), object request brokers (ORBs), remote procedure calls (RPCs), and transaction-processing (TP) monitors. (For definitions of all of these, see the sidebar below, "Middleware methods.")
However you classify it, middleware is important, says Chris Stevens, electronic commerce analyst at the Boston-based market research firm the Aberdeen Group. "The Web servers themselves--from Microsoft or Netscape or whoever--aren't all that striking anymore. The key issue is providing the middleware necessary to bring corporate systems onto the Web."
"Absolutely," agrees Erica Rugullies, research analyst at the Hurwitz Group in Newton, Mass. "The companies, the users, are looking for integration with their back-end systems. And that's not easy."
The result has been a boom in the middleware market. Dozens of companies, ranging from start-ups to giants, have developed products that they hope will be to the Web market what Phoenix Technologies' BIOS was to the PC market--that is, the invisible but universal common denominator that makes computing possible.
All five of the major middleware types are represented among current offerings. Particularly active are the database companies; all of the major RDBMS vendors, from Informix to Unify, are offering software to link their databases to the Web. Some are actually developing entire Web-based computing architectures for a computing model in which the de facto user interface is the browser; Oracle's Network Computing Architecture and Informix's Universal Web Architecture are examples.
However, many of the larger architectures are still under construction, and the pure database-to-Web middleware solutions don't necessarily link Web sites to other legacy systems. So, at least for the moment, the focus of the Web-middleware market tends to be on the third parties that are following either a MOM or a combined ORB-TP monitor strategy.
Why these two? Chiefly, "because message-oriented middleware and ORBs came out of LAN and WAN markets," says Tom Laffey, cofounder and vice president of engineering at Talarian. The other middlewares tended to come out of pure client/server applications, where one large system is connected to one smaller system. On the Internet, by contrast, a great many systems of any number of sizes are talking all the time. "And message-oriented middleware had already worked out the sorts of issues involved [in that kind of communication] long before the Internet came along," he says.