How they learned to stop worrying and love Cobol

IT managers that use Cobol in their organizations are quick to defend the the capabilities of the language - even as many plan to get rid of it. This week's cover story, Cobol: Not Dead Yet, examines this seeming paradox.

We surveyed 352 readers in IT management and then asked many of them to tell us what the deal is. Boy did we get an earful.

While Cobol still excels at tasks such as batch processing (see Cobol's Batch Advantage), few outside the mainframe data center want to hear it. Even many of the Cobol faithful appear resigned to the idea that as Cobol moves off the mainframe much of it will be eventually rewritten or replaced with packaged applications. Yet most recoil in horror at the idea of a total rewrite, and for good reason.

If Cobol gets no respect, neither do Cobol programmers in some situations. That's a shame, because their expertise in building rock-solid back-end systems that run the enterprise is unparalleled.

One user's story that didn't make this week's feature comes from a reader. He told me that his company decided to move off the mainframe and rewrite all of its application code, most of which is written in Cobol. But here's the thing: The decision was made by IT management, with no involvement by the mainframe team. Now the Cobol programming staff is being retrained in .Net. Their task: rewrite everything - thousands of programs that form the backbone of the company's operations - within the next few years.

Such massive rewriting projects don't have a good track record. Has this reader been set up to fail?

"All of us would have jumped at the chance to leverage what we have," he adds. But what are the alternatives to rewriting if you're under orders to dump the mainframe? Many programmers have had success in recompiling Cobol programs to run on Windows, Unix or Linux servers and in encapsulating Cobol routines and exposing them as Web services to be consumed by .Net or Java applications. Vendors such as Micro Focus and AcuCorp both offer tools that can help. The former also offers Net Express With .Net, which slips neatly into the .Net Framework to provide an integrated programming environment. From there it's possible to take the time needed to decide what applications to rewrite, phase out, replace with packaged applications - or leave where they are. If it ain't broke...

Most Cobol programmers and project leaders are smart enough to know there's no need to rush things. Smart IT executives would do well to listen to them.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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