Cobol on the mainframe: Does it have a future?
All that legacy code has to have skilled engineers to maintain it
By Robert L. Mitchell | Computerworld US | Published: 14:12, 15 March 2012
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 mainframe workloads of up to 3,000 MIPS, the workload at the bank, which relies heavily on Cobol, consumes 52,000 MIPS of processing horsepower, spans nine mainframes and is growing at a 10% clip 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 non-core 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.
Other functions, such as general ledger and reporting, are moving onto distributed computing platforms, where they are either replaced by packaged software or reengineered into Java or .Net applications.
But Brown still needs Cobol programmers to replace those expected to retire, and the learning curve can extend out 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 onboard 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 said that the "real heavy need" will happen in the next five to 10 years, as the original mainframe programmers are expected to retire en force during that period. BNY Mellon currently has "a few hundred" Cobol programmers on staff, Brown 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 organisations. "Almost every job we get has Cobol in it," he says, and most of the calls come from organisations that have already lost their collective knowledge of the business logic. At that point, he says, "it's a big risk."
Closing the Cobol talent gap
Where do you find Cobol programmers these days? College graduates with training in Cobol are in short supply. In Michigan, for example, state schools that offer Cobol programming have cancelled classes due to a lack of interest.
"They can't get anyone to enroll," says Jonathan Miller, director of Saginaw County Information Systems and Services.
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, IBM fellow and chief technology officer.
The Guardian Life Insurance company has recruited Cobol programmers from Workforce Opportunity Services, a non-profit that collaborates with business clients and local colleges to train economically disadvantaged students to fill 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 programme. We have over 200 consultants today in five states, and we're expanding," says Workforce founder Art Langer.
BNY Mellon and many other organisations also increasingly rely on outsourcing firms to pick up maintenance and support duties. But for many customers with mission-critical applications, offshore is not the place to keep the institutional knowledge of the business rules that is behind that 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, he says, is to develop a curriculum that teaches not just Cobol, but the business rules behind the code that runs the company. "We need to make sure we can roll that forward."
The cost of waiting
Trinity Millennium Group and other vendors like it have established processes for analysing 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 (£600,000) to have its Cobol programs analysed and business logic reconstructed as part of a migration project off the 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 ten times higher than it would have been beforehand.
Compounding the loss of skills and business knowledge is the fact that, for some organisations, 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."