What is integration middleware? And how can your organization use it?

Integration middleware

According to Statista, the average number of SaaS applications an organization uses has ballooned by 7x since 2017.

In many respects, this trend should be celebrated. It underscores organizations’ growth and the bigger budgets they have as a result. Moreover, it shows that organizations are increasingly willing to adopt function-specific, best-of-breed applications for managing tasks and processes.

However, the growth in application adoption forces organizations to think through how their apps can work together to best support employees, customers, and, of course, the business.

The first step in navigating this exercise for many organizations is evaluating integration middleware and deciding on the software that’s best for them. 

We’ll guide you through this step by covering everything you need to know about this type of tool.

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What is integration middleware?

Integration middleware is a 3rd-party tool that allows you to connect two or more applications. These applications can be cloud-based (e.g. SaaS application) or live on-premises (e.g. legacy database).

An integration middleware can take the form of an enterprise service bus (ESB) tool, which allows applications to connect and talk to one another through a centralized communication bus; or an integration platform as a service (iPaaS), which is a cloud-based platform that can connect applications via their application programming interfaces, or APIs, and establish data flows between them.

Examples of using integration middleware

Integration middleware is often used in one of two ways: application integration and data integration. Let’s review each use case with concrete examples.

1. Integrating your CRM and ERP system

You’ll need to enable interoperability between your CRM and ERP system in order to invoice clients quickly.

To help facilitate this need, you can integrate a CRM like Salesforce with an ERP System like NetSuite and implement and following workflow:

A workflow that keeps accounts in sync between Salesforce and NetSuite

1. Once an account is updated or created in Salesforce, the workflow gets triggered.

2. The middleware software checks to see if the customer already exists in NetSuite. 

a. If it does, it updates the customer based on the changes made in Salesforce.
b. If it doesn’t, it adds the customer and updates it according to the changes made in Salesforce. 

2. Implementing a customer 360

Let’s say that as part of your approach to data management, you want to create a single source of truth for customer data (i.e. a customer 360). This involves using a middleware tool to adopt an ETL process:

The process of setting up a customer 360

1. Extract specific data from source systems that host customer information—an ITSM tool, CRM, marketing automation platform, live chat tool, etc. 

2. Validate the data in order to remove duplicates and inaccuracies and transform its data model to what your data warehouse uses.

3. Load the data into your data warehouse. 

Your analysts can then pull the data into their business intelligence and analytics tools, and your customer-facing teams can receive the data in their business applications in real-time—all but ensuring that it’s valuable to them.

Related: How to implement a customer 360

Why do organizations turn to middleware?

Here are just a few reasons to keep in mind.

1. It lets you avoid point-to-point integrations

Point-to-point (P2P) integrations, or the use of custom code to stitch together applications, is fraught with issues:

  • Your developers have to invest a significant amount of time on building to applications’ APIs and in maintaining those connections—taking them away from other business-critical tasks they’re uniquely suited to perform. 
  • You’re forced to over rely on select developers; only they know where the code lives and how to troubleshoot and improve integrations. As a result, when they leave your company, the long-term performance of your integrations will likely be affected.
  • You’re unable to implement new integrations fast enough; your developers may be tasked with higher priority projects or find that the scope of build is extensive.

Fortunately, using a middleware platform, you don’t need to adopt this approach and risk experiencing any of these challenges.

2. It often exceeds native integrations’ capabilities 

Native integrations, or integrations that the applications themselves make available, are also far from perfect. 

  • The provider likely makes only a handful of integrations accessible, preventing your organization from implementing the majority that are needed.
  • The provider may fall short of your expectations when it comes to enhancing or fixing the integrations over time. After all, they also have engineers who face competing priorities—and integrations likely aren’t at the top of their lists.

3. It offers enterprise-grade security and governance

Middleware tools, particularly iPaaS solutions, have a track record of protecting sensitive, business-critical data effectively. For example, many vendors comply with a variety of data protection and privacy laws and regulations, from HIPAA to GDPR. In addition, they can help you enforce the principle of least privilege (users only get access to the data they absolutely need) through features like role-based access control.

Related: How to perform data streaming

Where traditional middleware platforms fall short

Despite its benefits, middleware often comes with drawbacks.

User experience

Middleware tools normally require a certain level of technical expertise from its users; this precludes the majority of your employees from using them, and, as a result, makes it difficult for your organization to implement integrations at scale. Over time, this leads to significant integration backlogs, lengthy delivery timelines, and a worsened relationship between IT and lines of business.

Unfortunately, we see this playing out in the real-world: When surveying hundreds of BT professionals as part of our State of Business Technology, we found that speed of delivery (which includes providing integrations) and integration/automation tools were the biggest frustrations in their role.

A horizontal bar chart that displays the top frustrations for BT professionals

End-to-end automations

While there’s clearly value in syncing data between applications and automating mundane, time-consuming tasks, your organization needs to go further to truly innovate and transform. More specifically, you need to automate your business processes end-to-end, whether it’s quote to cash, lead routing, incident management, etc. 

Traditional middleware tools fall short of providing this functionality, as they rely exclusively on connectivity. 

Related: Where data orchestration tools fall short

Built-in bot framework

Providing employees the data they need within their applications isn’t enough. 

To help them avoid hopping between applications and move faster, you’ll need a platform bot that can communicate between your business communications platform (e.g. Slack) and the applications your employees rely on. Once implemented, employees can access their applications’ functionality and data in just a matter of clicks within their business communications platform. 

How a platform bot (“Workbot”) for Microsoft Teams can look when someone reviews a prospective deal from a colleague.
How a platform bot (“Workbot”) for Microsoft Teams can look when someone reviews a prospective deal from a colleague.

Like the previous drawbacks, classic middleware tools have yet to offer up this capability. 

At this point, you might find yourself wondering: Is there a platform that includes the benefits of traditional middleware solutions AND accounts for their drawbacks?

The answer takes the form of an enterprise automation platform. 

Using this type of platform, your employees can access a low-code/no-code UX, enterprise-grade governance and security features, hundreds of thousands of automation templates and hundreds of pre-built connectors—and much, much more.

Learn more about this type of platform by scheduling a demo with an automation expert at Workato, the leader in enterprise automation.

About the author
Jon Gitlin Content Strategist @ Workato
Jon Gitlin is the Managing Editor of The Connector, where you can get the latest news on Workato and uncover tips and frameworks for implementing powerful integrations and automations. In his free time, he loves to run outside, watch soccer (er...football) matches, and explore local restaurants.