What is a message queue?
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What is a message queue?

A message queue is a component of messaging middleware solutions that enables independent applications and services to exchange information.

Message queues store “messages” or packets of data that applications create for other applications to use in the order they are transmitted until the consuming application can process them. This enables messages to wait safely until the receiving application is ready, so if there is a problem with the network or receiving application, the messages in the message queue are not lost.

This model, which is known as asynchronous messaging, prevents data loss and enables systems to continue to function if processes or connections fail. This allows developers to keep processes and applications separate, keeping their communications self-contained and event-driven to make the architecture more reliable.

Message queues are available in messaging solutions across numerous deployment options, including optimized physical appliances, cloud services, mainframes and as software.

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Message queuing solutions are widely used across industries. They offer an array of benefits to developers and system administrators alike, including the following:

  • Reliable message delivery: Using a message queue can ensure that business-critical messages between applications will not be lost and that they will only be delivered to the recipient once. With this feature in place, additional de-duplication or loss-prevention logic is unnecessary.

  • Inter-application connectivity: Some message queue solutions can handle message encryption, transactionality and other communication aspects between applications and services. This simplifies application development and enables disparate architectures to work together.

  • Versatility: Message queue solutions can support multiple languages, such as Java, Node.js, COBOL, C/C++, Go, .NET, Python, Ruby, and C#. They can also support numerous application programing interfaces (APIs) and protocols, including MQTT, AMQP, REST and many others.

  • Resilience: Asynchronous messaging ensures application-specific faults won’t impact the system. If one component in the system stalls, all others can continue interacting with the queue and processing messages. This decreases the chance that the entire system’s stability will be impacted by one part’s failure.

  • Improved security: A message queue may be able to identify and authenticate all messages. In some message queue solutions, they can be set to encrypt messages at rest, in transit or end-to-end. This can contribute to the overall security of the applications and infrastructure.

  • Integrated file transfers: Some message queue solutions include additional features, such as the ability to transfer files. This can be used as an alternative to FTP within enterprises where such solutions are in use.
Use cases

Today’s enterprise computing environments are complex and highly decentralized. Messaging makes it easier to integrate applications and services on diverse platforms by providing a single, robust and secure shared messaging backbone. This protects against data loss and ensures that systems continue to function even with unstable connectivity.

Message queues are uniquely suited for integrating on-premises backend systems with cloud services. In cloud architectures, applications are often broken down into small, independent components. This makes it easier to design and code them, and also easier to manage their performance. Message queues enable these decoupled cloud-based applications to communicate with each other or with on-premises systems.

Message queuing increases architecture resilience because the messages can have persistence. This means they’re stored to disk until the service receiving the message confirms processing. Messaging queues can be used in scenarios requiring high levels of security, fault tolerance and accuracy, such as financial transaction processing, air-travel booking or updating healthcare patient records.

Message queues can also be used to enable applications and systems residing in different clouds (whether public cloud or private cloud) to communicate, even if they are located in different countries or even on remote continents. Using a message queue increases fault tolerance and can be used to prevent data being duplicated or lost across geographically and technically disparate systems. Because each service within the system is decoupled, or logically separated from the others, each can continue to function if other services or applications fail or stall.

Message queues work across disparate applications such as mobile, IoT and traditional transaction system records. They also support various platforms, such as virtual machines and containers, and can enable integration between legacy applications and today’s latest solutions.

Message queue versus other messaging models

Message queue versus publish/subscribe
Message queues use a point-to-point messaging pattern, in which one application (called the sender) submits a message to the queue and another application (called the receiver) gets the message from the queue and uses it. There should be a tightly coupled one-to-one relationship between the sender and consumer, and each message should be consumed only once.

If your applications require messages to be distributed to multiple parties, either multiple message queues can be combined or a publish/subscribe (pub/sub) messaging model can be used.

In pub/sub messaging, the application that produces the message is called a publisher and the applications that are using it are the subscribers. Each message is published to a topic, and every application that subscribes to that topic gets a copy of all messages that are published to it.

Most messaging middleware solutions support both the message queue (point-to-point) and pub/sub messaging models.

Message queue versus message bus
A message bus, which is a type of enterprise service bus or ESB, allows services ubiquitous access to data while ensuring that they remain decoupled and independently functional within a distributed system architecture. When you employ a message bus, all the services or applications must share common data types, a common command set and common communication protocols (although they may be written in different languages). Consumers can determine how they use messages.

If decoupled applications are to communicate through a message bus, the messages must be transformed so that they are all the same type. In contrast, message queues transport messages, whether they are of the same or different types.

Message queue versus web services
Applications can communicate directly through web services or APIs based on standard protocols, such as Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) or HTTP, instead of through messaging middleware. Web services are widely used in distributed systems, which are relatively simple and easy to implement, making them a viable alternative to message queues in certain use cases and scenarios.

However, unlike message queues, web services cannot guarantee message delivery. If the server or connection fails, you must build the capability to handle the error within the client. Web services also lack pub/sub distribution models. Messaging middleware offers greater fault tolerance and better ability to handle heavy traffic or activity bursts.

To learn more about when to use APIs, when to use messaging or when to use both, see “An introduction to APIs and messaging.”

Message queue versus databases
Databases can be used as an alternative to message queues in certain situations. However, they serve different purposes and are not readily interchangeable most of the time. Databases are most commonly used for storage, and they allow you to access the same information over and over again. Message queues cannot be used for storage purposes. Once a message has been consumed, it is deleted from the queue.

Designing message queue-like functionality into a database is possible, but it requires a great deal of coding effort and knowledge. Databases can only be used to replicate simple queue structures and aren’t scalable for larger applications. 

Check out “A Brief Overview of the Database Landscape” for more info on databases and their capabilities.


Message queuing is traditionally administered by dedicated teams within IT. But “as-a-service” delivery, using a cloud-hosted message queue can enable individuals or line-of-business (LOB) users to request changes to the messaging infrastructure on their own, through a portal, which can increase agility.

Message-queuing-as-a-service naturally works well within serverless or microservices architectures common in cloud-native development. Because it’s offered in a cloud-hosted service model, the cloud provider handles all the provisioning, installation and maintenance of your messaging infrastructure, and it is hosted in the cloud.


These tutorials will help if you’re new to developing applications that communicate through IBM® MQ:

These additional resources will give you a more comprehensive overview: 

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