Dressing up COBOL in modern garb

FRAMINGHAM (10/17/2003) - A fair criticism of the trade press is that we are fascinated with new technology and lose sight of the fact that you folks are mired in legacy molasses.

Take COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language). While headlines today focus on things such as Java and Microsoft's .Net, according to statistics gathered by The Senior Staff, a San Jose, California databank of IT professionals over the age of 35:

* 75 percent of business data is processed in COBOL (Source: Gartner Inc.).

* There are 180 billion to 200 billion lines of COBOL in use worldwide (Gartner Inc.).

* 15 percent of new applications are written in COBOL (Gartner Inc.).

* "Replacement costs for COBOL systems, estimated at US$25 per line, are in the hundreds of billions of dollars" (Tactical Strategy Group).

Not surprisingly, a top IT concern is how to haul this legacy forward into modern frameworks. And that concern is fired, in part, because the universe of COBOL programmers is shrinking. Gartner estimates that there were 90,000 COBOL programmers in North America in 2002 and that number will decline 13 percent by 2006, which will translate into higher costs to maintain legacy COBOL programs.

Enter companies such as Micro Focus, a software firm that delivers products designed to help customers migrate COBOL assets to the world of Windows, .Net, Java and Web services, says Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Tony Hill.

Based in the U.K. but with 40 percent of its 500 employees in North America, Hill says the customer hook is cost savings and agility.

The savings can be huge. As we have adopted packaged applications from SAP AG and others and migrated those functions off the mainframe, the remaining COBOL programs have had to shoulder a larger percentage of the host costs.

"Some of these COBOL apps cost $5 million per year to run on a mainframe, where it might only cost $1 million per year on an alternative platform," Hill says. "There are costs associated with migrating but the ongoing savings are huge."

And once shifted you can start to get creative, making data from COBOL applications available to personal digital assistants, cell phones, public PCs, etc. "In some sense we're a tools company," Hill says. "We enable customers to develop, extend and deploy COBOL assets."

Given the dreadful state of some legacy COBOL applications, which have been customized heavily over time, it won't always be possible to drag the programs into the future. But given the sunken investment and cost of replacement, it has to be one of the options considered first.

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