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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But Gwinn says he'll miss Cobol. "It has been very stable and consistent, with little breakage due to code changes, which you see with Java-based changes," he says. "And in a distributed environment, you have to balance your workloads a little more carefully."

Going for a Rewrite

The anticipated exit of institutional knowledge and the resulting shortage of Cobol programmers were also primary drivers of NYSE Euronext's decision to re-engineer 1 million lines of Cobol on a mainframe that ran the stock exchange's post-trade systems. While Cobol was dependable, it wasn't viewed as maintainable in the long run.

Steven Hirsch, chief architect and chief data officer at NYSE Euronext, cites the need to make changes rapidly as another reason the stock exchange abandoned Cobol. "Ultimately, the code was not easily changeable in terms of what the business needed to move forward. We were pushing the envelope of what it took to scale the Cobol environment," he says.

So NYSE rewrote Cobol programs that run its post-trade systems for Ab Initio, a parallel-processing platform that runs under Linux on high-end Hewlett-Packard DL580 servers. The new environment allows for more rapid development, and the rewrite has eliminated a substantial amount of unnecessary code that had crept into the original Cobol programs over the years.

If a business's Cobol code doesn't need to change much -- as is the case for many batch and transaction processing programs -- then the code can be maintained on or off of the mainframe indefinitely. But that 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, they're all built with 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, Mich., 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.

Generous government benefits packages used to attract candidates 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." 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 Computerworld survey respondents said they're doing. (See the full survey results here.)

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