The Cobol Brain Drain

When the last Cobol programmers walk out the door, so may 50 years of business processes within the software they created. Will you be ready?

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Gartner estimates that the world has seen a decline of about 5% in total Cobol code over the past few years. Much of that involved migrations by small and midsize mainframe shops that move off what they see as a legacy language when they retire the hardware, says analyst Dale Vecchio. They're using other building blocks to develop their systems. "Cobol is no longer needed," Vecchio says. "There are alternatives."

Rehosting can get code off the mainframe quickly. One vendor that caters to users considering 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.

Cobol's Image Problem

A procedural language, Cobol is not perceived to be as agile as object-oriented languages for modern programming needs such as mobile apps and the Web. And despite the availability of state-of-the-art Cobol development environments -- including IBM's Enterprise Cobol on the mainframe and Micro Focus's Visual Cobol, which integrates well with Microsoft's Visual Studio development suite for .Net -- Cobol is widely viewed as a legacy language.

Nearly half (49%) of the Computerworld survey respondents whose organizations don't use Cobol said the reason is that the language is simply outdated.

Not everyone agrees, of course. "Cobol has had lasting value, and it's not broken," says Kevin Stoodley, an IBM fellow and CTO of enterprise modernization tools, compilers and security at IBM.

A majority of the Computerworld readers who took part in our survey seem to concur with Stoodley: 64% of the respondents said their organizations still use Cobol -- more than any modern language except for Java/JavaScript and Visual Basic. That figure is actually slightly higher than the response rate to a similar question in our last survey on Cobol use, from 2006. Some 62% of respondents to the 2006 survey said they still used Cobol.

In the more recent survey, over 50% of respondents said Cobol represents more than half of all internal business application code.

"There has been no renaissance for Cobol," says Accenture's Burden. "There's not a whole lot of new development going on. But our clients are enhancing their core applications and continue to maintain them." Indeed, 53% of the survey respondents said they're still building at least some new business applications in Cobol. The vast majority of that code is still being written for mainframes.

But the fact is that many IT organizations don't have much choice but to continue using Cobol. Migrating large-scale systems built in Cobol is costly and risky. "They might want something more flexible, but they just can't do it. They're captive to Cobol," Burden says.

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