What is an ESB? And how does it fall short of your integration needs?

ESB guide

As cloud-based platforms continue to lead the digital transformation, and CRMs, ERP tools, and HCM systems become more sophisticated in providing a full view of customer data and employee productivity, your company needs a way to share information from one tool to the next. 

After all, when your applications aren’t able to communicate, your work becomes siloed and your understanding of your customers is incomplete. 

That’s where an ESB can help. 

What, exactly, is an ESB? What are its benefits and drawbacks? And how does it prevent the silos that are simply incompatible with doing business? Read on to learn the answers to these questions, among others.    

What is an ESB?

An ESB, short for enterprise service bus, is an architecture formed by rules that integrate applications over a “bus-like” infrastructure. The “bus” is a middleware tool through which data is routed among applications, and this is what most distinguishes the ESB from other integration approaches, such as those provided by an iPaaS or point-to-point (P2P) integrations

This infrastructure distributes communication among the various connected components that make up the system of interconnected apps. Since the applications transmit data through the “bus” first, they’re not communicating directly with one another. 

Not only does the bus decouple applications, it also acts as a translator of sorts. Applications often use and send data in different formats or languages—CSV, JSON, XML, for example—and without a translator, one couldn’t effectively communicate with another. 

An ESB architecture remedies the central shortcomings of P2P integrations in that it removes custom coding and can connect more than two applications, making it much more agile and scalable. However, because the ESB primarily connects complex, monolithic applications made up of many interdependent features, this potential for scalability has a limit. 

Related: How an ESB and iPaaS differ

ESB vs microservices

To fully understand what an ESB is and how it works, let’s first look at microservices, another IT architecture that connects applications.  

With microservices, an application is divided into modular components that perform distinct functions. Each component can be written in a different programming language, but remain connected to the other parts through APIs (application programming interfaces). 

Typically, you might consider an application as a whole product that includes many features. The ESB connects all of the features and services of an application to the bus and, therefore, to the other applications within the system. Thus, the ESB usually grows considerably as applications are added, and this makes for a complex and difficult to manage system. 

An application that uses microservices architecture, however, should be considered instead as a suite of smaller features that, when linked together, form the larger application. This means that microservices are a much more lightweight and agile framework. 

This more extreme modular setup allows for easy modification to any of the individual services, so if a developer wants to improve just one small feature of an application, they can do so cleanly and without having to modify the entire app. 

The ability to make adjustments that are responsive to customer or business needs is instrumental in driving growth in an organization. With microservices, just one component of an application can be scaled, and, if there is a failure, the rest of the application remains unaffected. 

While the agility of microservices sounds appealing, it’s important to keep in mind that not all organizations have systems that are compatible with the framework. 

What are the benefits of using an ESB?

In some instances, companies are still using legacy systems that, while outdated, are still in use and vital to the company’s operations. ESBs are capable of connecting these old and inflexible systems with newer cloud-based services. 

In addition to this common function of ESBs, let’s consider their other benefits: 

1. Provides a single point of access

Since the integration work is done primarily on the “bus,” you can have one, dedicated team working “on” the bus to build, troubleshoot, and manage those integrations. This centralized workflow saves the time and frustration that would otherwise be spent finding, let alone resolving, errors throughout a widely distributed system. 

2. Simplifies communication 

An ESB tool can handle multiple protocols in the transmission of data from one application to the next. The bus acts as a translator that can also alter the message if needed. This allows for the standardization of messaging between services across the organization. 

3. Assists developers 

With P2P systems, developers have to create custom code for every connection—this is time consuming for just a few integrations. As the system grows, it can dominate their daily work and deplete their enthusiasm for the job. The ESB allows developers to create one configuration that can be applied to any application connected to the bus. This speeds up system upgrades, application modifications, and frees up developers to work on more business-critical tasks. 

4. Manages security

Because the bus is a single point of entry and therefore provides a full view of the entire application system, it can act as a gateway for security and authorization protocols. 

As you can tell, an ESB can provide useful functionality, especially for companies needing to integrate the old with the new. But, it’s important to also consider the drawbacks of this integration architecture. 

Related: What’s data governance? What’s data management? And what are their key differences?

The drawbacks of using an ESB

While ESB tools are a reliable way to connect applications, their technology is becoming more obsolete as the cloud dominates digital ecosystems and as companies experience a rate of growth that requires even faster adaptability across their systems.

Here are the main drawbacks of an ESB tool:

1. Bottlenecks quickly emerge

Because an ESB is a centralized system of connections, and often serviced by a specialized IT team, when demand for upgrades or modifications to applications rises and more requests are made on the system, some teams are left waiting in line. This bottleneck can bring productivity to a halt. 

2. Requires experienced developers

While there are fewer configurations required in ESBs than in P2P integration systems, the complexity involved in the long-term management of an ESB  can require IT personnel with considerable experience. These experts come at a high cost, and once they’re in your company, you’d probably rather be using them for more business-critical tasks. 

3. The bus can break down

The bus can skip steps of a process, take too much time between steps, and simply experience failures that prevent a step from initiating. And, since the ESB is the centerpiece of the integration system, if these issues need to be fixed, the applications that are connected to it are at risk of failure if something goes wrong.

Related: What is data synchronization?

An alternative solution: an integration-led automation platform

An integration-led automation platform addresses the integration needs of any enterprise while avoiding the drawbacks of the ESB. 

For one, the platform doesn’t require coding, which allows employees across your organization to build integrations (in a secure, governed environment) while developers can spend more of their time on other important tasks. In addition, it allows you to implement end-to-end automations across business processes—from employee onboarding to quote-to-cash to incident management.

Want to learn more about this type of platform? You can schedule a demo with an expert at Workato—the leader in integration-led automation.