Today’s top story: COBOL
We have all been reading with interest the wide variety of commentary in recent days regarding the programming language COBOL in the middle of the debate. The commentary ranges from bewilderment that it is still so widely used, to bewilderment at those who didn’t realize it was still in use, to those who were amazed at the vast array of everyday transactions reliant on COBOL across a variety of industries.
At Micro Focus, we like to keep things in perspective, so let’s revisit some of the implied problems facing the world of COBOL right now, and dig past the perceptions.
“There is a skills crisis for COBOL in the market”.
We really don’t think so. First of all, witness the hundreds of volunteer coders stepping up to help out at one particular high profile organization when they asked for help. Second, look at how the community of vendors, suppliers and practitioners have responded. For example, we applaud the position taken by the likes of the ZOWE (see here) in making supportive statements about training, talent and technology resources. This is very similar to Micro Focus’ reminder about where to access free technology resources for COBOL in fact.
More broadly, if you look at the vast numbers of computer science graduates coming into the market each year, and consider how they are acquiring their skills, learning their trade has never been more exciting and accessible. Commodity-platform based scale-out architectures are now increasingly main-stream and form the basis for most IT courses available. Everyone is learning Cloud, IDEs, and Hybrid computing. Everyone is learning about agile and DevOps, continuous integration and delivery. And today’s application development graduates are well versed in Java, C# and a wide range of other more modern languages. The task of cross training those already knowledgeable in Java or C# in older languages like COBOL or PL/I systems is relatively straightforward and cost effective, compared to recruiting and training mainframe professionals skilled on traditional tooling. If mainframe technology is made available to this new breed of IT professionals in the same way other technology is—through modern IDEs then embracing agile development processes also becomes not only possible, but perfectly normal good practice. It’s no secret that there is a large group of COBOL professionals nearing retirement age and that is why Micro Focus has collaborated with companies and universities to establish the COBOL Academic Program, which provides free access to the latest teaching tools for COBOL application development. It’s also probably worth noting here that the COBOL Programmers Group on Facebook has swollen its ranks to over 13,000 members.
Our customers’ testimonials about their internal training programs, the speed of training new COBOL staff, and the advanced technology available to them, suggests that with sensible planning, the mountain of a skills challenge is more of a mole-hill. At Micro Focus, we’ve long maintained that skills planning and management is the part of an IT resourcing strategy activity that, with the right levels of funding and preparation, would avoid any skills crisis. Our recent blog on the topic is here.
“These systems are old and should have been replaced years ago”
In most cases, an organization has made significant investments in their COBOL systems over time, including developing additional IP and processes to support it. These core systems are enabling real benefits and generally touch business-critical data. Ripping them out and starting from scratch thus may degrade the ROI on those investments and put critical revenue functions, services and business continuity at risk. This should be a top consideration with any change activity.
According to our recent Micro Focus COBOL Survey, over 70% of enterprises favor modernization as an approach for implementing strategic change as compared to the replacing/retiring of key COBOL applications. Continued evolution is shown by the strategic alignment of COBOL systems through modern-day technology with 42% seeing Cloud as a core and viable platform to support the business agenda. As the IT landscape evolves, COBOL remains vital in new ecosystems and its continued evolution is a foundational element of IT and business transformation. In fact, 92% from the same survey state that these same COBOL systems are strategic to their organizations.
Increasing numbers of industry experts are warning against the dangers of high-risk replacement projects, advocating pragmatic modernization projects in their place. When every dollar and happy customer counts, considering the right option for DX is critical.
“These systems are too big to change easily”
Modernization of core business systems, as with any change project, should be examined pragmatically and through a variety of lenses. Organizations typically want to attain significant improvements by altering the underlying delivery processes, or to the applications themselves, without having to change the underlying hardware. It is important to consider all aspects of the modernization strategy holistically to choose the right path. The Micro Focus Modernization Maturity Model, a framework for planning and implementation, helps organizations assess and implement steps needed to embark on a successful modernization project.
Smart change always starts with a clear understanding of the current position. What are we trying to do, and why? And where do we want to be? Micro Focus’ provides class-leading application assessment technology to understand fully the breadth and depth of core COBOL systems before any considering decision about its destiny. This assessment activity is the recommended approach of our value profile service, which seeks to guide any modernization journey based on fact and in balance with the organization’s accepted risk profile.
Our 40-year COBOL experience has witnessed over 1,000 major COBOL modernization projects successfully completed. The diversity of those projects is a testament to COBOL’s ongoing value: major application updates using RESTful APIs, containerization, mainframe security, new user experience, refactoring; process improvements including DevOps adoption, support for agile CI/CD process, improved mainframe time to market improvements; or platform or infrastructure changes such as integration into .NET or Java, deployment into the mainframe, AWS, Azure, Linux, or elsewhere. The possibilities are almost limitless, but COBOL remains at the heart of the core business applications. COBOL remains the bedrock and is as vibrant and versatile as a 2020 technology should be, no matter where its future lies.
We live in difficult and uncertain times. Bad news often makes the headlines. Rarely do we report on ongoing successes. Which is perhaps a pity, but perhaps also why some are surprised with COBOL’s continued ubiquity and viability. To some, it is startling that each time you check your banking app on your phone, each time you pay your mortgage, each payroll check you receive, every time to renew your car or home insurance, whenever you ship a parcel, or wire some funds, purchase certain goods online, visit the ATM, COBOL is quietly making that happen. To those who presided over its design and constant evolution to present day, and those organizations who have embraced the value it brings, this is no surprise.
If I can borrow from this article, “COBOL is 2020 technology; just with a 60-year heritage. Next time you pick up your mobile to make a call, or sit in your car to drive to work, ask yourself how you feel about how old that idea is.”