Brain drain: Where Cobol systems go from here

When the last Cobol programmers walk out the door, 50 years of business processes encapsulated in the software they created may follow

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 goes back to the early days of Cobol 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 the employees who are retiring.

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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 Computerworld survey of 357 IT professionals conducted recently, 46 percent said they are already noticing a Cobol programmer shortage in the market, while 50 percent said the average age of their Cobol staff is 45 or older; 22 percent 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 Corp. "I haven't seen companies move off mainframes due to the Cobol skills shortage yet, but it's looming."

For Bank of New York (BNY) 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 those programs more accessible through the use of Web services and more up-to-date user interfaces.

But for other types of non-core applications, and for smaller workloads, organizations have been gradually migrating off of mainframes -- and away from Cobol. In some cases those Cobol programs are simply re-hosted on Linux or Windows servers; in other cases they're rewritten in other, 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. Often that means leaving Cobol behind by either rewriting it for J2EE or .Net or moving to packaged software.

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.

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