Do COBOL Applications have a future?

If you’ve been watching the COBOL space this past year, you have no doubt noticed that this legendary language has been the topic and target of many publications and reports within the financial and public services (government) sector. Most articles have raised questions about whether COBOL remains fit for purpose, secure, or even viable as a modern day technology within an ever-changing digital world. We, the COBOL community, know that these reports aren’t necessarily grounded in fact, but they can offer an entertaining read. COBOL is seldom the sole challenge that organizations face today and, with the right IT planning, there are numerous options available to transform COBOL development and architecture to meet ANY digital challenge. But rather than taking my word for it, I thought I’d use this blog to share some of the highlights of the Future of COBOL Applications survey conducted earlier this year. The results are quite enlightening for those that doubt this business language’s role within the new digital economy, and in spite of the fact that COBOL is 60 years old.  Let’s take a closer look.

Survey Background

First, a bit of background.  In early 2017, Micro Focus partnered within a renowned, UK-based market research firm, Harris Interactive, to revisit market attitudes, perspectives, and future plans for COBOL-based applications. This survey, promoted through direct email and social media, took place in the spring and targeted organizations using COBOL applications on distributed or mainframe platforms.  Over 1200 respondents took part in the six-week survey, most of which were in technology roles, including developers, architects, consultants, engineers, and IT management. Although a global survey, the largest number of respondents were from the United States, Brazil, Latin America, Central Europe, and the United Kingdom.

Key Highlights

The survey touched on many aspects impacting COBOL applications, including longevity, strategic importance, new technology trends, modern development practices, and future skills planning. Let’s take a closer look at the highlights.

Over 85% of respondents believe their existing COBOL applications are strategic to the business. In fact, over 44% of that group referred to their applications as ‘highly strategic’ and aligned to the future business strategy. Their response is very credible when you also consider the size of these established applications. Over 90% of COBOL systems, per respondent data, are greater than 1 million lines of code, and more than 50% of those same applications have an expected life span of 10+ years. So effectively, the larger the COBOL application and the longer its life span, the more important that application is to the future business strategy—an argument that would resonate well with companies that have built their business on COBOL technology, such as many independent software vendors.

What about Emerging Technologies and New Trends? Where Does COBOL Fit?

According to the survey, over 77% of respondents indicated that Linux is their future deployment platform. Most respondents cited a lower total cost of ownership, integration with open source technology, and access to developer skills as leading reasons for the move. This response aligns well with industry investments in Linux platform technology such as SUSE Linux and hardware environments that include Linux on IBM z Systems, LinuxONE, and Linux on IBM Power.

Although Linux proved popular with survey respondents, modernization initiatives varied.  Integration with .NET and Java was the #1 priority, followed by adoption of modern development tools (IDEs), moving to the Cloud, and integration with relational database (RDBMS) platforms. Over 55% have active plans to modernize their COBOL applications over the next two years. Where Hybrid IT is the norm and many new digital projects are reliant on access to back office systems and data, it’s clear that IT leaders need modern business applications, infrastructure, and delivery processes to meet new digital requirements.

COBOL, Agile, and DevOps

Adapting COBOL applications, and data, along with underlying infrastructure, are important steps in transforming IT. Ultimately, though, the business wants faster and more frequent IT delivery of new services to its customers. To achieve this, IT must embrace DevOps practices that support faster application delivery. Survey respondents agreed, indicating that 52% of COBOL developers are utilizing Agile development practices in some way, compared with 25% utilizing Waterfall. In comparing both groups, both Agile and Waterfall teams see value in Test and Release automation and most are making strides towards Continuous Integration practices. Those embracing Agile saw 64% use of test automation and release automation, and 71% use of Continuous Integration practices. When compared with Waterfall teams, 50% were utilizing test automation, 55% were using release automation, and 60% were utilizing Continuous Integration practices. So regardless of methodology, COBOL teams are taking active steps to embrace automation and new development practices that support faster application delivery.

Let’s Review One Final Theme from the 2017 Survey: COBOL Skills

Traditionally viewed as a challenge for organizations with COBOL systems, what is the future of development talent and has the COBOL community changed its view on skills? Although retirement of skilled personnel is impacting many organizations and maintaining COBOL skills is still a concern, the most pressing skills issue is knowledge transfer—ensuring new developers properly understand existing business applications. Successful knowledge transfer was THE CRITICAL ISSUE for over 60% of survey respondents. For IT shops reliant on multi-decade back office (COBOL) applications, this concern is very valid. Understanding core logic is fundamental to transforming any business application to support new digital requirements.

So, What Does the Future Hold for COBOL Applications?

As you’ve seen from the survey highlights, COBOL applications are entrenched across many global organizations and they are expected to continue supporting critical business functions for the next decade (at least). New technologies, trends, and delivery practices are moving these applications into a new arena—one that requires greater IT agility, flexible development practices, and new ways of working across disparate teams. Most organizations see these systems as critical to their future success and they plan to leverage them to their fullest advantage in this new digital age. How will they advance their applications, embrace new infrastructures, and perfect new delivery practices? That journey to digital transformation begins with their individual application strategy.

Interested in learning more or starting your own digital transformation journey? The live webinar was on Thursday, December 14, in which Scot and I took a closer look at the Future of COBOL Applications. Gain a better understanding of the new forces that are driving IT change, get a closer look at the future of COBOL applications and get a quick access to the data points mentioned above by checking out the Future of COBOL Applications infographic.  The recorded webinar is right here

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