Brain drain: Where Cobol systems go from here

When the last Cobol programmers walk out the door, 50 years of business processes encapsulated in the software they created may follow.

David Brown is worried. As managing director of the IT transformation group at Bank of New York Mellon, he is responsible for the health and welfare of 112,500 Cobol programs -- 343 million lines of code -- that run core banking and other operations. But many of the people who built that code base, some of which goes back to the early days of Cobol in the 1960s, will be retiring over the next several years.

"We have people we will be losing who have a lot of business knowledge. That scares me," Brown says. He's concerned about finding new Cobol programmers, who are expected to be in short supply in the next five to 10 years. But what really keeps him up at night is the thought that he may not be able to transfer the deep understanding of the business logic embedded within the bank's programs before that understanding walks out the door with the employees who are retiring.

More than 50 years after Cobol came on the scene, the language is alive and well in the world's largest corporations, where it excels at executing large-scale batch and transaction processing operations on mainframes. Cobol is known for its scalability, performance and mathematical accuracy. But as the boomer generation prepares to check out of the workforce, IT executives are taking a fresh look at their options.

Is Cobol being used in your organization to develop new business applications?

Yes: 53%
No: 44%
Don't know: 3%

Base: 131 IT professionals

In a recent Computerworld survey of 357 IT professionals, 46% of the respondents said they are already noticing a Cobol programmer shortage, while 50% said the average age of their Cobol staff is 45 or older and 22% said the average is 55 or older.

"Organizations are trying not to get backed into a corner because of the skills issue," says Paul Vallely, mainframe sales director at software vendor Compuware. "I haven't seen companies move off mainframes due to the Cobol skills shortage yet, but it's looming."

For Bank of New York Mellon, which bought its first mainframe in 1955, keeping the core Cobol applications that run the business on the mainframe makes sense. Modernization efforts have made BNY Mellon's Cobol-based programs more accessible through the use of Web services and up-to-date user interfaces.

But for some noncore applications, and for smaller workloads, organizations have been gradually migrating off of mainframes -- and away from Cobol. In some cases, Cobol programs are simply rehosted on Linux or Windows servers; in other cases they're rewritten in object-oriented languages; and some programs are being replaced with packaged software.

"Over the past five years, there has been an acceleration of [some] businesses moving off host platforms," says Adam Burden, global application modernization lead at Accenture. Often that means leaving Cobol behind by either rewriting it for J2EE or .Net or moving to packaged software.

Gartner estimates that the world has seen about a 5% decline in total Cobol code over the past few years. Much of that decline was due to migrations by small and midsize mainframe shops that move off what they see as a legacy language when they retire the hardware, says Gartner analyst Dale Vecchio.

It's declining because the functions can be developed by some other building block. "Cobol is no longer needed," Vecchio says. "There are alternatives."

Rehosting can get code off the mainframe quickly. One vendor catering to users thinking of pursuing that option is Rockville, Md.-based Micro Focus, whose offerings include a system that will support Cobol programs on a Microsoft Azure cloud.

But rehosting is often seen as just an intermediate step on the way to completely modernizing and transforming Cobol systems.

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