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It’s not your grandmother’s COBOL

Johanna Ambrosio Contributing Editor, TechBeacon
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The most interesting shapeshifter around today isn't in the movies. It’s something that you keep tucked away in the server room: your company’s mainframe and the COBOL apps it runs.

Mainframes, and the overall COBOL environment, are changing to accommodate cloud workloads. They are adding modern development tools including .NET, Eclipse, Java Virtual Machine, and Visual Studio and hosting container software including Red Hat’s OpenShift, among other things.

All this makes it easier than ever before to update legacy apps to handle new business and customer requirements. And this seems to match up with the needs of many mainframe shops, which in two recent surveys said they plan to update their mainframe apps rather than leave them behind.

John Abbott, infrastructure analyst at 451 Research, said he sees COBOL apps, and the mainframes they run on, as a long-term play in many companies. In this scenario, IT staffers “can use more modern skills” to manage the machines, he said. This also allows companies to reduce the risks involved with completely re-engineering apps they probably lack the complete source code or in-house skills to do.

“Mainframes are still the best platform for reliability, and they use lots of partitions,” Abbott added. In other words, mainframes employed the concept of multitenancy long before the cloud caught up. And the mainframe’s “really high” utilization levels of 95% or better compare favorably to other types of systems, although they certainly are more expensive.

What customers want

In a survey sponsored by TechBeacon corporate parent Micro Focus and conducted by research firm Vanson Bourne, 92% of over 1,100 respondents said they consider their mainframe apps to be strategic. Some 72% approach COBOL app modernization as part of their digital transformation initiatives. And over 40% said their COBOL apps will support the cloud or already do.

This maps to another survey, of 1,300 IT executives and technicians, conducted by BMC last year. Some 92% of survey respondents perceive the mainframe as a platform for long-term growth and new workloads. Many of those respondents named AI and security as key new mainframe tasks.

In fact, IBM’s newest mainframe, the z16, introduced in early April, has new features that play up both areas. It sports quantum security and real-time, AI-based transaction processing. So, for example, the machine can analyze transactions as they happen, to detect fraud or recommend actions for a healthcare diagnosis.

How much COBOL?

One of the Micro Focus survey’s major surprises was how much COBOL already exists: some 750 billion to 800 billion lines of code. This compares to an earlier estimate of 200 billion to 300 billion. “We always expected it to be larger,” said Ed Airey, director of COBOL product marketing at Micro Focus. “But I don’t think we anticipated that.”

This is all production code and does not include duplicate code, Micro Focus said.

Nearly half of the Micro Focus survey respondents (48%) said they expect the amount of COBOL in their organizations to grow over the next year. A big part of the reason is to handle web and mobile access, containerization, and API integration for mainframe apps, Airey said. Overall, companies are modernizing their IT portfolio to become more competitive. “They’re aligning their app portfolio to new strategies,” he said. All of which means more COBOL, not less, is on the horizon.

Cloud is a particularly hot area, with vendors in that space doing all they can to persuade mainframe shops to move COBOL apps to their platform or at the very least connect to it. But 451 Research’s Abbott suggests caution with this approach. One reason is compliance worries with core applications, when machines that have been traditionally separate from the internet are now attached in a big way.

Another issue can be reliability, he added. “Cloud providers are pushing you to migrate mainframe apps to the cloud. But can you really replicate it? You have reliability zones, but you don’t have zero downtime. You have to be careful to replicate the functionality you want or need.”

Shortage? What shortage?

Misinformation that has been circling COBOL for years is about a shortage of COBOL programmers. Cameron Seay teaches COBOL and mainframes at East Carolina University in North Carolina and at Tennessee State University and co-chairs the Open Mainframe Project’s COBOL Working Group. “There is a perceived shortage,” he said, “and the problem is that people don’t know where to find” COBOL developers. Plenty of people know COBOL, he said.

At some point, he agreed, there will be an actual shortage, but he’s doing his part to circumvent that before it even happens. “My priority is to infuse COBOL into the general college curriculum,” Seay said. He’s mostly involved with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), particularly those that are not as well known as, say, Howard University, as a way of helping grads differentiate themselves and enter the tech field.

“We needed a niche,” he said, “and it’s been a great entry.” He has had to “explain what a mainframe is, but I don’t proselytize. I state the facts.” People want “something they can do better than anyone else,” he said, and “I’ve never had a problem keeping my classes full.”

Around half of his students transition to other platforms at some point, Seay said. So they’re “not pigeonholed. It’s just a great place to start in IT,” particularly for students attending HCBUs.

Updating COBOL apps takes different forms

There is no one “correct” way to modernize COBOL applications. It depends on whether you want to update the app with new logic or business rules or move it to another operating system or platform that you have the in-house skills to manage, as well as whether the application is business-critical or customer-facing.

“You can modernize the UI, integrate COBOL with a CI/CD platform, and do many other things,” Micro Focus’ Airey said. “We don’t have a predetermined destination or end state.”

The process involves doing a full inventory of the apps and using tools, including some new ones that employ AI, to discover the COBOL code, business syntax, and dependencies in the existing apps. Then, customers can “transform the software delivery process” overall, if they wish, Airey said, by using agile and/or DevOps techniques.

Generally, 451 Research’s Abbott said, companies modernize one or two apps at a time, or engage in, say, taking the authentication function off the mainframe—“offloading bits,” as he described it. Customers can then add support for mobile phones, the Internet of Things, and do other things “to keep the mainframe relevant.”

“COBOL is everywhere; there’s no doubt. And it’s not going anywhere for at least another decade,” Abbott said. There are many ways of “modernizing the software, and that’s what matters most of all.

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