One firm's story: The mainframe goes, but Cobol stays behind

Owens & Minor moves Cobol-based ERP system to x86 server, Windows machines

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Owens & Minor has so far moved the ERP software to two Hewlett-Packard HP ProLiant DL785 servers each with eight quad core AMD Opteron chips rated by HP at 3,200 MIPS. One server is for failover. The system was brought into production late last year.

Mears said that recent improvements in the x86 hardware platform helped with the decision to port the ERP system there. The new servers are 50% larger than the hardware Owens & Minor originally evaluated three years ago, while the cost remained about the same.

Owens & Minor worked with a number of vendors on the project, including the Dell Perot Health Care Systems Group and Micro Focus Ltd., to move the code to Windows Server 2008, which has built-in Unix emulator. New user interfaces were and are being developed, included a composite that combines business functions, such as customer support, the various processes employees need to access.

The change for users was dramatic.

For instance, previously the firm's 400-plus customer service representatives had to access at least four different systems -- the order management system, which had information about the customer and order; the warehouse management system; the product management system that stores all information about the products; and the accounts receivable system -- to resolve an issue. Each of the systems had its own separate screens and business logic. Now, the information is brought together in a GUI instead of a green screen, increasing processing speeds and improving order accuracy.

The company is now in the process of modernizing other screens with a Windows GUI.

The new environment also has a plug-in to Microsoft Visual Studio.

Al Gillen, an analyst at IDC, said that in general terms "it is probably not the best thing to do to extend the life of Cobol application in a Windows environment because the user interface is wrong and your don't really get a lot of the benefits you would get from moving to a more current system," he said.

But Gillen also said that Owens & Minor's "business logic was embedded in the Cobol" and "for better or worse that wasn't easily replaceable."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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