Brain Drain: Where Cobol Systems Go From Here

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.

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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.)

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 story, "Brain Drain: Where Cobol Systems Go From Here" was originally published by Computerworld.


Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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