Cobol preps for a much-needed celebrity makeover with tools from Acucorp and Micro Focus

Solutions help move cumbersome yet mission-critical Cobol from the mainframe to modern platforms

Cobol has certainly taken hits to its integrity over the four-plus decades it’s been in service.  It’s now widely renowned as cumbersome and inflexible to today’s IT requirements. Despite such an unflattering description, the vast majority of today’s high-profile enterprise business logic actually resides in mainframe Cobol applications.

Companies do not need to dispose of Cobol. They do need an easy way to expose those resources and get them to interoperate with today’s distributed computing models, without suffering the high cost of a full-blown EAI solution.

Fortunately, that’s precisely the challenge new products such as Net Express 4.0 with .Net from Micro Focus, and the Extend 6.1 suite from Acucorp are finally starting to address.

Both vendors, backed by impressive track records, are delivering non-invasive solutions to migrate application code off the mainframe for rehosting on less costly hardware and OS configurations. In addition, the included tools handily map interfaces to XML and .Net Web services, J2EE, and Enterprise JavaBeans, as well as Windows COM components.

These offerings have much in common, including Cobol compilers, IDEs for developing, testing, and deploying applications, as well as solid utilities for bridging legacy files and datasets. But they differ in their respective approaches.

Micro Focus includes integration with Microsoft Visual Studio .Net, giving it the capacity to create and extend Cobol code with capabilities from other .Net framework languages, such as C# or Visual Basic, WinForms, and WebForms. The compiler produces MSIL (Microsoft Intermediate Language) from your Cobol code, which enables it to run within the Common Language Runtime and directly integrate Web services.

Acucorp’s Extend, by contrast, includes the ACUCOBOL-GT development framework. The compiler produces platform-neutral object code that can be deployed, often without recompilation, to any number of platforms.

Neither of these solutions will solve every need. Depending upon factors such as complexity, transaction requirements, and integration necessities often stipulated by other enterprise systems, you might ultimately require a more complex renovation. But these solutions offer a good means to safely modernize your Cobol investments.

.Net Implants

Getting started with these products was a painless proposition. Net Express comes bundled with Microsoft Visual Studio .Net Premium Partner Edition, a languageless version of the Microsoft IDE. I installed it to my existing Enterprise Edition installation and was set up with all the framework constructs required to begin editing my Cobol code within .Net.

I imported Cobol code and mixed it with other .Net languages, unifying my project management efforts. The IDE extended benefits to my Cobol code editing, such as Intellisense type-ahead prompting and displaying data information when hovering over variables.

Micro Focus benefits from a number of task-automating wizards. The Interface Mapping Toolkit allowed me to expose Web services interfaces to my Cobol using wizard-driven menus to guide the process. However, when I went to customize the default interface, I found the kit lacking certain niceties, such as multivariable selection and group property modifications. But this is hardly a deal breaker.

The toolkit facilitated deployment to the included development Application Server and Enterprise Server, used for running real-time Cobol Web services and J2EE integration. This deployment provided the necessary WSDL (or EJB, COM, etc.) files and deployed the requisite Cobol and data files directly. The overall experience was one of clear expediency.

I found Acucorp’s installation, although not problematic, somewhat more tedious. The Extend 6 suite is sold as separate components, including the ACUCOBOL-GT development system and compiler, the AcuBench IDE, and Acu-ODBC, with each requiring a separate license and, in the case of the run times, separate installation for each platform and OS.

In addition, Acucorp’s interface mapping solution is not part of the Extend 6 product line. Rather, it is provided as separate components from Transoft, a third-party developer of application transformation and modernization tools.

The Transoft solution required the installation of a different development environment, component broker adaptors, and licensing. In fairness, Acucorp’s modularity does support a far broader range of development platform and run-time environments than Micro Focus’ Windows-only development.

Although Transoft handled Java and COM components well, there is minimal support for .Net, such as assembly reflection, and the solution continues to rely on COM wrappers. Acucorp indicated it is working on improving .Net support in the future, although the company is still assessing the need for MSIL support.

Looking Good

When it came time to test my work in AcuBench, good facilities and the expected cadre of tools enabled debugging in Cobol. I felt the testing could have benefited from some better visual cues, but that was only because I was using it next to Visual Studio.

Running the Micro Focus debugger from within Visual Studio, I enjoyed seamlessly stepping through my entire application — regardless of the underlying language to which calls were being made. The opportunity will absolutely speed testing and improve integration.

Micro Focus also includes a test coverage feature that enables you to document the code segments that have been accessed during testing, a boon to quality assurance efforts.

Both packages offer good RDBMS accessibility and the ability to prototype and precompile SQL. The OpenESQL Assistant in Micro Focus provides a wizard-based approach for building, testing, and inserting SQL statements into code. And I was able to call, create, and modify ADO.Net objects from directly within Cobol.

The Extend suite offers a number of additional products for managing SQL, DBMS, and making its Vision file system available to the network.

Both products also performed well when it came to mapping XML schemas to Cobol records. Net Express offers both SAX (Simple API for XML)- and DOM-style parsing, and can directly perform input-output operations on XML documents, circumventing the Cobol file system.

In this version, Extend also has added a new XML run-time library comparable to Net Express that affords reading and parsing of XML files. It surpasses capabilities of the previous AcuXML.

Additional features help round out both offerings, such as a source control versioning system in Net Express and dialog-building tools for creating native Windows interfaces in both. Acucorp includes a character-to-GUI conversion wizard that monitors an application’s screen output and imports it into AcuBench’s screen designer for modernization — a helpful touch.

Second Opinion

There’s more to blueprinting a legacy migration effort than cranking out new interfaces for Cobol code. With years of interdependencies and incongruous data structures rooted in your applications, you’d do well to try these solutions using known, self-contained applications to minimize risk.

Although neither of these packages includes a tool for dependency mapping, the Professional version of .Net Express does add Revolve, a tool for mapping associations that will help assess impact analysis. I would recommend the upgrade for anything but the most trivial of undertakings.

I would also like to see the inclusion of migration tools for porting items like CICS, BMS (Basic Mapping Support), and JCL (Job Control Language). There is a strong similarity between Internet-based transactions and CICS that actually makes them a good fit. Additional tools that support Cobol CICS translation and character-set conversions would help insulate these code sets from human disruption during the move. 

Whether these tools will help usher in a renaissance in Cobol development remains to be seen. Micro Focus and AcuCOBOL show that Cobol can still be an attractive ally for enterprise development, and that undertaking legacy migration doesn’t require time under a scalpel. Both products  offer companies a means to mitigate risk and improving accuracy when moving Cobol out of the shadows and into the spotlight alongside present-day IT computing models.

If you are looking to move to the .Net framework, Net Express with .Net would best suit your needs. However, if yours is an objective of enlivening Cobol with distributed platform flexibility, I would recommend Extend 6 be placed at the top of your list.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Ease of use (10.0%)
Performance (20.0%)
Scalability (10.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Interoperability (30.0%)
Developer tools (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Acucorp Extend 6.1 6.0 6.0 7.0 5.0 6.0 6.0 6.0
Net Express 4.0 with .Net 8.0 6.0 6.0 7.0 6.0 7.0 6.5
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