BNY Mellon and many other organizations also increasingly rely on outsourcers to pick up maintenance and support duties. But for many users, an offshore locale is not the place to keep the institutional knowledge of the business rules behind the 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 is to develop a curriculum that teaches not just Cobol, but the business rules behind the code that runs the company, he says, adding, "We need to make sure we can roll that forward."
— Robert L. Mitchell
Gartner estimates that the world has seen a decline of about 5% in total Cobol code over the past few years. Much of that involved migrations by small and midsize mainframe shops that move off what they see as a legacy language when they retire the hardware, says analyst Dale Vecchio. They're using other building blocks to develop their systems. "Cobol is no longer needed," Vecchio says. "There are alternatives."
Rehosting can get code off the mainframe quickly. One vendor that caters to users considering that option is Rockville, Md.-based Micro Focus, whose offerings include a system that will support Cobol programs on a Microsoft Azure cloud.
But rehosting is often seen as just an intermediate step on the way to completely modernizing and transforming Cobol systems.
Cobol's Image Problem
A procedural language, Cobol 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's 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%) of the Computerworld survey respondents whose organizations don't use Cobol said the reason is that the language is simply outdated.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, an IBM fellow and CTO of enterprise modernization tools, compilers and security at IBM.