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.

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If a business's Cobol code doesn't need to change much -- and many batch and transaction processing programs don't -- the code can be maintained on or off of the mainframe indefinitely. But that philosophy wouldn't work for NYSE Euronext. "We are a rapidly changing business, and we needed to move faster than our legacy code," Hirsch says.

As for the stock exchange's trading systems, that's all proprietary NYSE Euronext software. "There's no Big Iron or Cobol," Hirsch explains. "There's been no use of mainframes in the trading environment for many years."

Rehosting: Lift and shift

When it comes to hiring new Cobol programmers, Jonathan J. Miller, director of information systems and services for Saginaw County, Michigan, is struggling. "We've lost our systems programming staff," he says. And like many government IT organizations that have suffered from budget cuts, he doesn't have much to offer those in-demand Cobol programmers.

What's your organization's level of interest in outsourcing Cobol maintenance, either onshore or offshore?

Not interested: 73%
Currently outsourcing: 18%
Interested: 9%

Base: 131 IT professionals.

Generous government benefits used to attract job applicants even though salaries were lower than they are in the private sector. Now, he says, "our pay hasn't increased in eight years and benefits are diminished." To fill in the gap, the county has been forced to contract with retired employees and outsource Cobol maintenance and support to a third party -- something that just 18% of the respondents to Computerworld's survey said they're doing today.

The Cobol brain drain is starting to become critical for many government organizations, says Garza. "It's a high-risk problem in many countries we are doing work in. The people have retired. Even the managers are gone. There's no one to talk to."

Saginaw County found itself hemmed in by the complexity of its Cobol infrastructure. It has 4 million lines of highly integrated Cobol programs that run everything from the prosecutor's office to payroll on a 46 MIPS Z9 series mainframe that is nearing the end of its life. With mainframe maintenance costs rising 10% to 20% each year, the county needs to get off the platform quickly.

What's your organization's interest in outsourcing Cobol development, either onshore or offshore?

Not interested: 81%
Currently outsourcing: 12%
Interested: 7%

Base: 131 IT professionals

But commercial software packages lack the level of integration users expect, and Miller's team doesn't have the time and resources to do a lot of integration work or re-engineer all of the program code for another platform.

So the county is starting a multiphase project to recompile the code with Micro Focus Visual Cobol and rehost it on Windows servers. An associated VSAM database will also be migrated to SQL Server. Miller hopes that the more modern graphical development suite will make the Cobol programming position, which has gone unfilled for two years, more attractive to prospective applicants. But he acknowledges that finding talent will still be an uphill battle.

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