Diminishing Cobol skills – there is an alternative

It was recently reported that the government of California was having trouble implementing spending cuts because of a lack of skilled Cobol programmers. The state wanted to cut wages, but its payroll system is written in Cobol and the lack of Cobol resources made it difficult to effect the programming changes required, writes Ian Anderson, director at DNAstream.

It was recently reported that the government of California was having trouble implementing spending cuts because of a lack of skilled Cobol programmers. The state wanted to cut wages, but its payroll system is written in Cobol and the lack of Cobol resources made it difficult to effect the programming changes required, writes Ian Anderson, director at DNAstream.

It is not an uncommon problem, with many large organisations, including banks and governments, still running large parts of their operational systems on Cobol. EDS recently reported that nearly 70% of corporate systems are inflexible legacy systems. These can be over 30 years old and are often heavily customised with little or no supporting documentation.

The call has gone out for more people to be trained in Cobol but, despite the shortfall, most IT staff still prefer to learn newer technologies such as Java and C# and maybe continuing to support old, complex technology isn't the best answer anyhow.

At DNAstream, which specialises in services for SAP software, we found an issue at many of our customers was that the SAP software had to be interfaced with legacy Cobol systems, and this became a very time consuming and costly task due to a lack of knowledge and documentation on these old systems.

We decided to look for a more efficient way of overcoming this issue and this led us to Softwaremining - a company which had developed software to automatically convert from Cobol into modern object oriented technologies such as Java and C#. The software also has a facility to undertake business rules extraction to enable businesses to understand and document what the old Cobol programs are actually doing.

After a thorough investigation, we were convinced that the conversion tool did what it said on the tin - with a number of customer testimonials to back this up - so we became partners. We were really surprised that very few UK companies seemed to be aware of this option for the issues they were having with their legacy Cobol systems. Most seemed to be either struggling to support their old systems or outsourcing the problem to India.

The Cobol conversion software largely automates the conversion process, enabling projects to be completed in a fraction of the time. There are many advantages to using this automated conversion approach but the overwhelming key factor is significantly reduced risk and cost. In one project, costs were one tenth and the project was completed twenty times faster than an equivalent manual rewrite.

As well as providing an alternative solution to the Cobol shortage, we also found that there were additional customer benefits such as increased IT and (knock-on) business flexibility and the ability to move away from obsolescent hardware platforms. The ongoing IT support costs after conversion were also significantly reduced as existing staff could now maintain these modernised systems and there was less need for Cobol support staff.

There is also an increasing risk that Cobol skills will continue to reduce further and companies will be unable to even simply maintain their existing systems. A report by Butler Group in July 2008 concluded that the combination of Cobol resource problems and technology limitations meant that companies running Cobol applications will have to seriously consider code migration soon - and with market estimates that the skills base will shrink dramatically over the next ten years, manual code conversion may no longer be an option.

Automatic conversion of Cobol code is by far the most cost effective and minimal risk approach. The alternatives are to do a manual re-write which is costly, complex and involves error-prone manual work or to replace the legacy system with a new business application - but this may not be possible, or may require significant and expensive changes to the existing business processes.

Butler Group, commenting on the tool, noted that the flexibility, cost-effectiveness and rapid results that can be delivered add up to a strong business case.

Yes there is a Cobol resource problem and yes there is an alternative solution - convert your Cobol.

This was last published in January 2009

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