Meet Cobol's Hard Core Fans
These folks won't migrate; the reason probably isn't what you're thinking.
With the long-anticipated Cobol skills shortage starting to bite, many businesses have been steadily migrating applications off the mainframe. Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina has been doubling down.
The healthcare insurer processes nearly 10% of all healthcare claims in the U.S., and uses six top-of-the line IBM zEnterprise EC12 systems running millions of lines of optimized Cobol to process 19.4 billion online healthcare transactions annually. Its custom-built claims processing engine has been thoroughly modernized and kept up to date, says BCBS of SC vice president and chief technology officer Ravi Ravindra. "It was always in Cobol, and it always will be."
Cobol was designed to handle transactional workloads, and for large-scale transaction processing it still can't be beat, says Lonnie Emard, vice president of IT at BCBS of SC and president of the Consortium for Enterprise Systems Management (IT-oLogy), a nonprofit association of businesses, vendors and higher education institutions dedicated to helping build a talent pipeline for Cobol and other hard-to-fill IT-related disciplines.
"We are the low-cost provider," says Lonnie Emard, vice president of IT, Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina. "We couldn't do that if we weren't on the mainframe."
"We are the low-cost provider," Emard says. "We couldn't do that if we weren't on the mainframe."
Some organizations continue to run the business using Cobol on the mainframe simply because migrating all of that code to distributed computing systems without a compelling business benefit wouldn't be worth the trouble and expense. But some of the world's largest businesses see their Cobol infrastructure not as fading legacy technology but as a state-of-the-art, competitive weapon.
For both groups, the challenge lies in finding the next generation of talent to run those systems or risk being forced off the platform. "There's been no abatement in the number of people retiring," says Adam Burden, lead for advanced technology and architecture at Accenture, and the pipeline of new Cobol programming talent has been insufficient to address the impending outflow of retiring baby boomers.
As businesses continue to struggle with the problem, Accenture has been busy adding Cobol programmers to its consulting practice to fill the skills gap for its clients, Burden says, even as IBM, IT-oLogy and others attempt to train and recruit the next generation of mainframe talent.
The mainframe's stronghold
For many businesses in healthcare and other industries with large-scale transaction processing needs, including airlines, retail, banking and government, Cobol on the mainframe remains the core transaction engine. Several mainframe vendors remain in the market, including Unisys, Groupe Bull and Fujitsu, but IBM has the lion's share of the market today, with more than 90%. And 50 years after IBM released its first mainframe, the System/360, in April 1964, the company still has 3,500 mainframe customers.
What's next for zEnterprise
IBM is working to address several shortcomings of the mainframe by focusing on three key areas, says Deon Newman, vice president of IBM System z.
Analytics. IBM wants to provide more analytic capabilities on the platform to reduce the need to continuously move transactional data off the mainframe for processing. "Our customers want to use it in real-time fraud detection, upselling and cross-selling. Some of this will be on zLinux, and some on zOS," Newman says.
Mobile enablement. Java subsystems will allow enterprise applications to be "extended out onto the Web," Newman says. And that will lower some costs of doing business on the mainframe. IBM customers pay based on the number of transactions processed, but many transactions, such as balance inquiries, don't generate revenue. Mobile has greatly expanded the problem, with more than half the workload coming in from the Internet and mobile applications. So IBM recently discounted what it charges for mobile transaction charges by 60%. "That means that software pricing won't explode in the same way that mobile transactions are," he says.
Cloud. IBM is pushing the mainframe as a consolidation platform for x86-based distributed computing in environments where server or virtual machine counts exceed 200. It sees the mainframe as a cloud appliance for hosting distributed computing workloads, and not just for folks who already have a mainframe and have excess capacity to soak up: In April IBM released the Enterprise Cloud System, a fully integrated Linux-based OpenStack-compliant system with a utility-based pricing model.
Some 23 of the world's top 25 retailers, 92 of the top 100 banks, and the 10 largest insurers all entrust core operations to Cobol programs running on IBM mainframes, says Deon Newman, vice president, IBM System z. Since 2010, around 50 to 75 customers have left the mainframe fold, IBM says, while some 270 of IBM's 3,500 mainframe customers have come aboard as new clients since then, Newman says.
For these mainframe-centric businesses, the Cobol application suite that runs the heart of the business isn't going anywhere. "But they still need to deal with the declining Cobol workforce . . . to keep these systems viable for the next decade or two," says Dale Vecchio, research vice president at Gartner Inc.
As for the other 90% of businesses running mainframes today, Vecchio thinks the Cobol brain drain will be the catalyst for more extensive migrations off the platform, through rewrites, moves to packaged applications or recompiling and re-hosting Cobol on distributed computing platforms.
After years of foot dragging, the looming Cobol brain drain will force many organizations into making a decision -- one way or the other -- within the next three to five years. "Increasingly, I see this transition happening," Vecchio says. "Waiting isn't going to make this any cheaper, and it isn't going to reduce the risk."
You don't just walk away from one million lines of Cobol code. Jim Veglahn. program manager, United Life Insurance
United Life Insurance Co. falls into the other 90%. The midsize business migrated off its Unisys mainframe several years ago, but didn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. It kept more than 1,000 Cobol programs that run the business, recompiling those for Windows using Micro Focus Visual Cobol, says program manager Jim Veglahn. "You don't just walk away from one million lines of Cobol code," he says. And while it's harder to fill open positions than it was a few years ago, Veglahn says his strategy is to "stay on Cobol and train as needed."
But the demographic shift will, in the long term, make Cobol "almost unsalvageable," says Vecchio. "The only debate is the slope of the decline."
BCBS's Emard disagrees. "Can we keep up with the demand for Cobol talent? Absolutely. The supply needs to be increased with the knowledge that these jobs are not going away," he says.
Vecchio says the number of Gartner clients that want to talk about mainframe migrations is up sharply. "I had 200 mainframe migration inquiries last year, and I have been speaking with thousands of mainframe shops about this whole migration question," he says. Mainframes eventually will be marginalized to only the very largest organizations in the market, Vecchio adds. "They're the only ones who can invest in initiatives and create their own training programs," he says.
Streamlining mainframe applications
Even some of the biggest mainframe shops are streamlining mainframe operations for non-core functions. BNY Mellon runs nine IBM System z10s that supply a total of 54,000 MIPS of compute power and handle $1.5 trillion in transaction processing workloads each day. The Cobol codebase that powers those systems has grown from 343 million lines two years ago to 357 million lines today, adding 2,500 new programs along the way.
"I believe it gives us a competitive advantage, especially with the transaction volumes we're doing," says David Brown, managing director and chief application architect.
But the growth of BNY Mellon's Cobol codebase reflects enhancements to the bank's core transaction processing systems. Few organizations, BNY included, are building entirely new applications in Cobol anymore.
In other areas, BNY Mellon has also been steadily peeling away mainframe applications that aren't strategic to its banking operations. It has moved to packaged applications in some cases, recast some applications in need of a heavy rewrite onto distributed computing platforms and pushed ad-hoc reporting capabilities off the mainframe as well.
I believe [Cobol] gives us a competitive advantage, especially with the transaction volumes we're doing. David Brown, managing director and chief application architect, BNY Mellon
"If you're doing sequential processing and you have a mainframe footprint, that's where that functionality belongs," says Brown. "But on things you're doing ad-hoc -- mobile, big data -- all of those run better on distributed platforms."
When applications that used to be hosted on the mainframe are re-hosted or rewritten to run on distributed computing platforms, however, that makes things more complex when it comes to accessing data that still resides back on the mainframe, Brown says.
To avoid that, he has been looking at hosting rewritten applications on a zLinux partition on the mainframe. "I can rewrite a piece of Cobol but closely interface with the mainframe program and database without jumping between a mainframe box and a distributed box," he says.
As for BNY Mellon's core systems, Brown says, "I see Cobol on the mainframe continuing on in perpetuity. Over half of our major applications are still on the mainframe. It offers the best scalability, reliability and availability for doing sequential processing."
Rebuilding the talent pipeline
The idea that Cobol and the mainframe are legacy technology is a perception issue, BCBS of SC's Ravindra argues. It's a mindset that has pushed students away from taking Cobol and other mainframe technology courses, and convinced schools that they shouldn't offer mainframe-related technologies in computer science curricula.
Despite efforts such as the 8-year-old IBM Academic Initiative, the talent pipeline hasn't kept up as the baby boomers who dominate today's mainframe shops begin to retire in larger numbers. "The market, universities and junior colleges aren'tgenerating enough developers to replace those who are retiring," Gartner's Vecchio says -- a sentiment shared by Emard.
"There was no pipeline for Cobol talent, and we realized we couldn't do it by ourselves. It's costly to go it alone," says Emard. So BCBS of SC helped form IT-oLogy. Emard says the goal is to make sure that lack of talent doesn't force companies to move off the mainframe.
The initiative promotes awareness of job opportunities in the discipline, college-level training, internships and cross-training of existing IT professionals. IT-oLogy has doubled the number of schools offering its Mainframe Academic Initiative, and the programs have reduced BCBS of SC's onboarding costs by 50%, Emard says.
How IT-oLogy aims to close the skills gap
While programs like the IBM Academic Initiative promote curricula to higher education institutions for Cobol and other mainframe disciplines, universities weren't always receptive to the idea coming from a vendor, says Lonnie Emard, president of the Consortium for Enterprise Systems Management (IT-oLogy). IT-oLogy conveys the message that its members, including Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina, Time Warner Cable, Fidelity Investments and other firms, are ready and willing to hire graduates with training in Cobol and other hard-to-fill IT disciplines. "We're all about skills in short supply," Emard says.
The program has three pillars:
- Promote IT offers outreach to students in grades K-12 to advocate for IT careers and talk about what IT skills will be in demand in the future.
- Teach IT is a collaboration between industry and academia to ensure that curricula include subjects that meet the needs of businesses hiring in the IT profession, as well as to provide internship opportunities. Emard sees the program as a "minor league farm system" to develop future IT professionals.
- Grow IT focuses on professional development and cross-training for existing IT professionals.
"Today kids have no bias against the mainframe. They're just glad to hear that they can make $60,000 or $70,000 a year. If someone is paying that kind of money it's a nonissue," he says.
Better development tools are also making training new talent easier.
Newer versions of Cobol that work within the Eclipse and .Net integrated development environments, such as Micro Focus Visual Cobol, have made it easier to pull over existing developers from the object-oriented side of the house, although the transition from object-oriented programming to the procedural Cobol language is still jarring, says BNY Mellon's Brown. "You can use the same tools with a common structure, but the paradigm is different," he says.
With modern development tools there's much less actual coding involved. "At BCBS of SC we're not asking people to write lines of pure Cobol code anymore," Emard says. Instead, the business uses an application generator from Micro Focus. "The key is, how do you optimize that with all of the other stuff that comes into play, such as the website and mobile apps. But we still need folks who understand the development environment that has Cobol at its core," he says.
The offshoring option
Offshoring can also help with the Cobol talent shortage. "Accenture has seen a material increase in the number of resources we have that are Cobol knowledgeable," in response to an increase in demand, says Accenture's Burden. "Our clients are looking to third parties to maintain these Cobol applications as it becomes more difficult due to the skills shortage."
But not all businesses want to entrust to outsiders the institutional knowledge of all of the business rules encoded in that Cobol code. What's more, says Vecchio, "A lot of the Indian service providers don't want to do Cobol and be the garbage dump for legacy apps. They want to move upstream and be strategically involved."
U.K. retailer Tesco hired hundreds of local Cobol programmers in India. "Our Cobol development community there is fairly young," says Tom Kadlec, director of information services.
U.K.-based retailer Tesco runs millions of lines of Cobol application code on a 70,000-MIPS zEnterprise EC12 mainframe infrastructure to power its store replenishment, credit card authorization and settlement, and payroll systems. Tesco avoided the institutional-knowledge issue by opening an office in India and directly hiring hundreds of local Cobol programmers as employees. And in India, Tesco doesn't have to worry about the impending retirement of baby-boomer employees. "Our Cobol development community there is fairly young," says Tom Kadlec, director of information services.
Like Ravindra, Kadlec has no intention of migrating the core systems that run the business over to a distributed computing platform. "The combination of our Cobol applications and the mainframe platform is what gives us a competitive advantage," he says.
Preparing for the inevitable
At BNY Mellon, the talent crunch is still about five years away, Brown estimates. Many of the bank's 300 to 400 Cobol programmers were hired right out of college in the 1980s and range in age from 45 to 55, Brown says. "We haven't had the big exodus yet," but as the economy picks up he says he worries that the impending wave of retirements could come sooner rather than later.
The company is working with universities and offshore resources to bring in "younger blood" and get the talent pipeline flowing. But so far, he says, it's been a slow process. Brown has been able to fill vacancies as they crop up, but in the future, retention bonuses and pay premiums may be required to acquire those scarce Cobol skills, he says.
While the types of companies using mainframes and the types of workloads on the mainframe may be evolving, Cobol and related mainframe skill sets will continue to provide jobs for the foreseeable future, says Burden. "On a macro basis I haven't seen a material decline in the amount of Cobol code that's out there." And for every program that does a migration there are still a dozen running -- and those continue to grow and evolve, he says. " I don't see that changing for a decade -- or more," he says.
Read more about applications in Computerworld's Applications Topic Center.
This story, "Meet Cobol's Hard Core Fans" was originally published by Computerworld .
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?
David Brown is worried. As managing director of the IT transformation group at Bank of New York Mellon, he is responsible for the health and welfare of 112,500 Cobol programs -- 343 million lines of code -- that run core banking and other operations. But many of the people who built that code base, some of which dates back to Cobol's early days in the 1960s, will be retiring over the next several years.
"We have people we will be losing who have a lot of business knowledge. That scares me," Brown says. He's concerned about finding new Cobol programmers, who are expected to be in short supply in the next five to 10 years. But what really keeps him up at night is the thought that he may not be able to transfer the deep understanding of the business logic embedded within the bank's programs before it walks out the door with employees who retire.
More than 50 years after Cobol came on the scene, the language is alive and well in the world's largest corporations, where it excels at executing large-scale batch and transaction processing operations on mainframes. The language is known for its scalability, performance and mathematical accuracy. But as the boomer generation prepares to check out of the workforce, IT executives are taking a fresh look at their options.
In a recent Computerworld survey of 357 IT professionals, 46% of the respondents said they are already noticing a Cobol programmer shortage, while 50% said the average age of their Cobol staff is 45 or older and 22% said the age is 55 or older.
"Organizations are trying not to get backed into a corner because of the skills issue," says Paul Vallely, mainframe sales director at software vendor Compuware. "I haven't seen companies move off mainframes due to the Cobol skills shortage yet, but it's looming."
For Bank of New York Mellon, which bought its first mainframe in 1955, keeping the core Cobol applications that run the business on the mainframe makes sense. Modernization efforts have made BNY Mellon's Cobol-based programs more accessible through the use of Web services and up-to-date user interfaces.
But for some noncore applications, and for smaller workloads, organizations have been gradually migrating off of mainframes -- and away from Cobol. In several cases, Cobol programs are simply rehosted on Linux or Windows servers; in other cases, they're rewritten in object-oriented languages; and some programs are being replaced with packaged software.
"Over the past five years, there has been an acceleration of [some] businesses moving off host platforms," says Adam Burden, global application modernization lead at Accenture. That often means leaving Cobol behind by either rewriting it for J2EE or .Net or moving to packaged software.
Closing the talent gap
Where do you find Cobol programmers these days? College graduates with Cobol training are in short supply. In Michigan, for example, state schools that offer Cobol programming education have cancelled classes because of a lack of interest. "They can't get anyone to enroll," says Jonathan Miller, director of information systems and services for the government of Michigan's Saginaw County. But some colleges are still providing Cobol training -- with help from IBM. The mainframe vendor has developed curricula in association with more than 80 colleges and universities ranging from Brigham Young to Texas A&M.
"We donate hardware and software, help with the curriculum, and they graduate hundreds of people every year," says Kevin Stoodley, an IBM fellow and CTO.
Guardian Life Insurance has recruited Cobol programmers from Workforce Opportunity Services, a nonprofit that collaborates with business clients and local colleges to train economically disadvantaged students to work in less popular technology disciplines such as Cobol programming. "They take kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods and provide them as consultants," says former Guardian CIO Frank Wander, who now has his own consultancy, IT Excellence Institute.
"It's sort of a work-study program. We have over 200 consultants today in five states, and we're expanding," says Workforce founder Art Langer.
BNY Mellon and many other organizations also increasingly rely on outsourcers to pick up maintenance and support duties. But for many users, an offshore locale is not the place to keep the institutional knowledge of the business rules behind the code. David Brown, managing director of BNY Mellon's IT transformation group, says the bank wants those skills in-house. Fortunately, it's not all that difficult to cross-train programmers in Cobol. "Right now, it's pretty easy to hire programmers. And if they understand Java, I can bring them back to procedural languages like Cobol," Brown says. The trick is to develop a curriculum that teaches not just Cobol, but the business rules behind the code that runs the company, he says, adding, "We need to make sure we can roll that forward."
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.
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.
The down economy has helped put off the inevitable, says Compuware's Vallely. "Economic issues provided everyone with a hall pass because not as many folks were looking to retire," he says. But as the economy improves, retirement plans may pick up too. "Organizations are trying to be more proactive," he adds.
"No other language has seen as big an impact from changes in the demographics of the workforce as has Cobol," Vecchio says. Going forward, it will become more difficult to maintain a Cobol portfolio. "The inflection point will come when enough Cobol programmers have retired that an organization can no longer tolerate the risk," he says. At that point, most of those programs will migrate -- but not all.
For BNY Mellon, those Cobol batch and transaction processing programs on the mainframe represent an enormous investment. And while Gartner says it's technically possible to move individual mainframe workloads of up to 3,000 MIPS, the bank's aggregate workload, which relies heavily on Cobol, uses a total of 52,000 MIPS of horsepower, spans nine mainframes and is growing at a rate of 10% each year.
"The business wants us to make investments in programming that buys them new revenue. Rewriting an application doesn't buy them any value-add," Brown says.
Instead, the strategy is to "rightsize" some noncore applications off the mainframe where there's a business benefit, try to keep mainframe MIPS growth under 5%, and stay the course with the bank's core Cobol applications by passing on the business knowledge to younger programmers the bank will need to recruit and train (see "Closing the Talent Gap").
Other functions, such as general ledger and reporting, are moving to distributed computing platforms, where they are either replaced by packaged software or re-engineered into Java or .Net applications.
But Brown still needs Cobol programmers to replace those expected to retire, and the learning curve can last for a year or more. That means adding staff and having a period of overlap as Cobol's secrets get passed on to the next generation. "I'm trying to get those people on board and do the knowledge transfer sooner rather than later," Brown says.
But that kind of proactive approach, and the extra costs it incurs, can be a hard sell. "We haven't gotten to the point of feeling the pain yet. When we do, it will happen," he says.
Brown wouldn't specify the number of people he's hoping to hire, but he says the "real heavy need" will happen in the next five to 10 years, when the original mainframe programmers are expected to retire en force. BNY Mellon currently employs "a few hundred" Cobol programmers, he says.
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.
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% ofComputerworld survey respondents said they're doing. (See the full survey results here.)
The Cobol brain drain is becoming critical for many government organizations, says Garza. "It's a high-risk problem in many countries [Trinity Millennium is] doing work in. The people have retired. Even the managers are gone. There's no one to talk to," he explains.
Saginaw County found itself hemmed in by the complexity of its Cobol infrastructure. It has 4 million lines of highly integrated Cobol programs that run everything from the prosecutor's office to payroll on a 46 MIPS Z9 series mainframe that is nearing the end of its life. With mainframe maintenance costs rising 10% to 20% each year, the county needs to get off the platform quickly.
But commercial software packages lack the level of integration that users expect, and Miller's team doesn't have the time or resources to do a lot of integration work or to re-engineer all of the program code for another platform.
So the county is starting a multiphase project to recompile the code with Micro Focus Visual Cobol and rehost it on Windows servers. An associated VSAM database will also be migrated to SQL Server. Miller hopes that the more modern graphical development suite will make the Cobol programming position, which has gone unfilled for two years, more attractive to prospective applicants. But he acknowledges that finding talent will still be an uphill battle.
A Legacy Continues
Is there a role for Cobol off the mainframe? "I don't believe there is. Cobol and the mainframe run well together, and that's where I want to keep it," says BNY Mellon's Brown. The bank still creates new Cobol components on the mainframe and will continue to do so.
That's a common sentiment among Accenture's large corporate customers, says Burden. Cobol will continue its gradual decline as midrange systems are retired and businesses continue to modernize legacy Cobol code or move to packaged software. Today, Cobol is no longer the strategic language on which a business builds new applications. But it still represents the "family jewels" of business, Burden says. "They're enhancing existing applications and adding functionality to them. I've seen no slowdown in those activities," he explains.
If companies can't find talent to keep that infrastructure going, third-party service providers such as Accenture are ready, says Burden. The scale of Accenture's support operation is large enough to provide a career track for Cobol programmers, and he notes that it's easy to cross-train on the language. "We can turn out new programmers quickly. If clients can't support Cobol, we will," he says.
"People make too much of that trend that we're not graduating enough Cobol programmers," says IBM's Stoodley. Preserving the institutional knowledge is what's critical. "You can make a problem for yourself if you don't keep your team vibrant," he says. But as long as there's a demand for it, "businesses will find people willing to work on Cobol."
Cobol may have been created for simpler times in application development, but it remains the bedrock of many IT infrastructures. "You have to respect the architecture of Cobol," Burden says. "I don't see that changing for another 10 years, or even longer."
Mari Keefe, editorial project manager, provided research assistance for this survey.
This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier onComputerworld.com.
Robert L. Mitchell — National Correspondent
Robert L. Mitchell writes in-depth technology features and a regular blog at Computerworld. He writes on a wide range of topics, including analytics, emerging technologies, green IT and data centers.