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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Brown's concerns are well placed, says David Garza, president and CEO of Trinity Millennium Group, a software engineering firm that has handled code transformations for large businesses and government organizations. "Almost every job we get has Cobol in it," he says, and most of the calls come from organizations that have already lost their collective knowledge of the business logic. At that point, he says, a migration is "a big risk."

The Cost of Waiting

Trinity Millennium Group and similar vendors have established processes for analyzing and extracting the business rules embedded between the lines of Cobol code. "The solutions have come a long way in terms of the ability to extract logic and rules," says Burden.

But the process is time-consuming and costly. One Millennium client recently spent $1 million to have its Cobol programs analyzed and business logic reconstructed as part of a migration off of a mainframe. "If they had the legacy programmers there and we had done the exercise with them, it would have cost $200,000 and taken one-tenth of the time," Garza says. If you wait until that institutional knowledge is gone, he warns, the costs can be as much as 10 times higher than they would have been beforehand.

Compounding the loss of skills and business knowledge is the fact that, for some organizations, decades of changes have created a convoluted mess of spaghetti code that even the most experienced programmers can't figure out. "Some systems are snarled so badly that programmers aren't allowed to change the code at all," Garza says. "It's simply too risky to change it. They're frozen solid."

Jim Gwinn, CIO for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, faced that type of situation. The USDA's System/36 and AS/400 systems run Cobol programs that process $25 billion in farm loans and programs. "We have millions of lines of Cobol, and there's a long history of it being rewritten," he says. "It has become increasingly difficult to change the code because of the complexity and the attrition of the knowledge base that wrote it." That's a big problem because laws that govern farm programs change every year, driving a need to update the code to reflect those changes.

Gwinn hired consultants from IBM, who concluded that rewriting the programs in a different language or rehosting them on a distributed computing platform would be complicated and costly. But the System/36 hardware had to go, so Gwinn decided to bite the bullet: The FSA will move off of its end-of-life mainframe systems by rewriting some of the code in Java and replacing the rest with packaged software from SAP.

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