Over the last few years, Gartner estimates that the world has seen about a 5 percent decline in total Cobol code, says analyst Dale Vecchio. Much of that involved migrations by small- and medium-sized mainframe shops that move off what they see as a legacy language when they retire the hardware.
It's declining because the functions can be developed by some other building block. "Cobol is no longer needed," Vecchio says. "There are alternatives."
While rehosting can get code off the mainframe quickly -- Micro Focus sells a platform that will support it on a Microsoft Azure cloud -- that is often seen as intermediate step. It can be used as a way to get Cobol off the mainframe quickly, before eventually completely modernizing and transforming those legacy programs.
Cobol's image problem
Cobol, as a procedural language, 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' 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(49 percent) of survey respondents whose organizations don't use Cobol say the reason is that the language is simply outdated.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, IBM Fellow and chief technology officer of enterprise modernization tools, compilers and security at IBM.
In the more recent survey, over 50 percent of respondents say 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 percent of readers say they're still building at least some new business applications in Cobol. The vast majority of that code is still being written for the mainframe.
But IT organizations also don't have much choice. Migrating large-scale systems built in Cobol is just too costly and risky a proposition. "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, Compuware's Vallely says. "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 predicts.
"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 inflexion 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.