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The term is most commonly used for software that enables communication and management of data in distributed applications. An IETF workshop in 2000 defined middleware as "those services found above the transport (i.e. over TCP/IP) layer set of services but below the application environment" (i.e. below application-level APIs). In this more specific sense middleware can be described as the dash ("-") in client-server, or the -to- in peer-to-peer. Middleware includes web servers, application servers, content management systems, and similar tools that support application development and delivery.
ObjectWeb defines middleware as: "The software layer that lies between the operating system and applications on each side of a distributed computing system in a network." Services that can be regarded as middleware include enterprise application integration, data integration, message oriented middleware (MOM), object request brokers (ORBs), and the enterprise service bus (ESB).
Database access services are often characterised as middleware. Some of them are language specific implementations and support heterogeneous features and other related communication features. Examples of database-oriented middleware include ODBC, JDBC and transaction processing monitors.
Distributed computing system middleware can loosely be divided into two categories—those that provide human-time services (such as web request servicing) and those that perform in machine-time. This latter middleware is somewhat standardized through the Service Availability Forum and is commonly used in complex, embedded systems within telecom, defense and aerospace industries.
The term middleware is used in other contexts as well. Middleware is sometimes used in a similar sense to a software driver, an abstraction layer that hides detail about hardware devices or other software from an application.
The distinction between operating system and middleware functionality is, to some extent, arbitrary. While core kernel functionality can only be provided by the operating system itself, some functionality previously provided by separately sold middleware is now integrated in operating systems. A typical example is the TCP/IP stack for telecommunications, nowadays included in virtually every operating system. At the other end of the scale, the boundary between middleware and application has also moved. Digital TV middleware for example usually provides enough functionality so that no "application" is needed for end-users to be able to use the TV services.
Middleware gained popularity in the 1980s as a solution to the problem of how to link newer applications to older legacy systems, although the term had been in use since 1968. It also facilitated distributed processing, the connection of multiple applications to create a larger application, usually over a network.
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