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 dates back to Cobol's early days 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 it walks out the door with employees who retire.
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. The language 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.
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 age 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 several 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. That often means leaving Cobol behind by either rewriting it for J2EE or .Net or moving to packaged software.