Middleware for Messaging

This article appeared as my column for Connect Magazine in July 2004.

If you're like most companies, you're probably using Microsoft Outlook and Exchange for messaging. Sure there are other email solutions, including Novell's Groupware and IBM's Lotus Notes, but Microsoft has effectively extended its hegemony to email as well. Interestingly enough, however, just as Microsoft gets to the finish line, the whole space may be changing out from under them.

As evidence that even Microsoft understands this, they have cancelled development on Kodiak, the follow-on server to Exchange 2003 and said they'll just do incremental development on the current platform. To understand the importance of this announcement, you have to realize that Exchange is one of Microsoft's vanguard enterprise products. They bundle Outlook with Office to get it on everyone's desktop and then follow-on with an Exchange sale. After that, buying other Microsoft enterprise products seems like a no-brainer for many CIOs. So, what would prompt Microsoft to give up their cash cow? Nothing less than a market shift of tectonic proportions.

Microsoft has realized that the concept of using a discrete application server to provide email is a dinosaur. Over the past year or so, other messaging formats such as RSS and instant messaging (IM) have been added to the corporate wish-list and forward-looking companies are moving to messaging architectures that incorporate a message store based on their favorite database, network services and some kind of middleware to tie them all together.

In this architecture, messaging is a service that other applications can call upon. IBM has been moving its Lotus products in this direction for a year or so. Oracle has been offering an Exchange substitute based on its database product for some time. While these products are not new, the corporate needs which drive them are accelerating.

One of the big challenges to more choice in the messaging arena has been the use of thick clients (like Outlook) and a proprietary protocol (such as Microsoft's MAPI) to tie lock users into the overall system. You'd think, with Microsoft's near ubiquitous praise for Web services, that there'd be a SOAP interface to Exchange, but there's not. You see, Microsoft thinks Web services are good for you, but not them.

One Utah company hopes to change that. Orem Utah-based CanyonBridge Technology has created a technology for building a browser-based email client that works as well as any thick-client email program you've ever used. They've also created a SOAP front-end for MAPI. Those two things break the vendor chokehold common to email systems, but they also create an opportunity for messaging integration beyond anything you've yet experienced.

When Dave Mitchell, a veteran Utah entrepreneur and CTO of CanyonBridge, showed me the thin-client email application and SOAP front-end to MAPI, I was impressed, but what blew me away was what he showed me next. Because his system uses a Web services-based middleware application to manage the messaging, they were able to integrate Saleforce.com's CRM (customer relationship management) services, which are also SOAP based, into the overall system.

What I saw was a browser-based email client that looks and acts like Outlook, that not only receives and sends email but manages contacts and appointments as well. On top of that, all of the Salesforce.com leads and appointments were showing up in the same interface, integrated nicely so that you could easily see appointments from both systems in one calendar and drag and drop contacts from one system to the other. Most impressive: CanyonBridge accomplished the integration using their framework in less than 3 days.

So, what does the future of messaging look like?

  • Messaging stores hosted in the same database you use for other data.
  • A middleware component for integrating multiple messaging formats that forms a configurable, programmable platform for customized messaging within the enterprise.
  • Thin-client, function-focused messaging applications that not only display messages in multiple formats, but also deliver messages to where you are, in the form you want, on the device you're using right now.

In this future, you stop living your life inside you inbox because your inbox has gone away. This doesn't mean you get fewer messages, but you get them more ubiquitously. Consequently, your email application is no longer the dominant interface in your online life.

As an example, one of the reasons email rules you life is because most enterprises use email as a de facto workflow system. Middleware for messaging promises real workflow systems that can be integrated with messaging systems for reduce the amount of email we all process. Rather than having a PO delivered to you as a spreadsheet in email that you have to open, review and approve with yet another email. The PO can be delivered to you as a Web application that you click to approve. The PO is still a message, but you can review and approve it in a few seconds instead of a few minutes.

This is just one example of how messaging middleware will change the landscape of your enterprise in the near future. Email may have been the Net's killer app, but that doesn't mean it will live forever.

Phillip J. Windley, the former CIO of Utah, teaches Computer Science at Brigham Young University. Windley is writing a book on digital identity, writes a weblog on enterprise computing at http://www.windley.com, and publishes UtahPolitics.org. Contact him at phil@windley.com

Last Modified: Friday, 31-Dec-2004 23:26:25 UTC