The global pandemic increases pressure on our legacy systems

Main visual : The global pandemic increases pressure on our legacy systems

Having been introduced to a better work-life balance due to lockdown restrictions, many are considering early retirement. This is especially true for ‘Baby Boomers’, like me - people born between 1946 and 1965, all of whom will be 65 years old or over by 2030.

A fellow ‘Boomer’ on the brink of retirement is COBOL, born in 1959. After 61 years in the game it’s become harder to use in comparison to modern programming languages.

It also lacks the agility that modern days systems require, which is one of the reasons why new applications are just not created using COBOL anymore. As a result, people are no longer being trained in it. Why would they? It’s a skillset with a shortening shelf life.

However, this has put businesses and governments around the world in a difficult situation, because many of them are still using it. It’s estimated there are more than 220 billion lines of COBOL code used globally to run multiple core applications.

These organisations need COBOL experts to service their complex systems. And the dwindling number of experts is not only making them difficult to find, but also pushing the price of COBOL developers and mainframe resources up.

While COBOL is becoming a redundant skill, in ten years’ time very few developers are going to be able to maintain these legacy systems. The only option is to rewrite COBOL systems into a modern language.

This poses difficulties, but if organisations don’t act while their remaining experts are still working, they will be caught out. The repercussions for some could be catastrophic. For example, I met a retailer that had its core application on the mainframe in COBOL – that’s 2500 shops with everything from Point of Sale, to inventory and customer service.

The decline in COBOL-skilled developers is a serious threat that we mustn’t underestimate. If organisations arrive at a point of no return because they’ve left it too late to convert their code, they could go out of business.

Being left behind with a COBOL system during the pandemic

COVID-19 has added to the pressure already on businesses using COBOL applications. Systems are becoming strained with increased demand, and so must be serviced because they’re unable to meet current needs.

Around 70% of IT decision-makers believe less than half of their current applications can support the future digital strategy of their organisation, according to Pierre Audoin Consultants.

This combined with the scarcity of COBOL developers doesn’t bode well.

For example, after the US government’s welfare system reported a 1600% increase in claims, New Jersey state governor Phil Murphy had to make a public appeal for experienced COBOL programmers to help support the system.

It’s obvious right now that there’s a sense of urgency to iterate systems to cope with this kind of steep decline. I’ve suggested that the only sustainable way to deal with this problem is to rewrite it to a modern language such as C# or Java, but doing that manually is a lengthy if not impossible task.

Manually rewriting so much code will introduce human error. If this happens the system may never work the same as it currently does, is likely to take years to deliver, and be cost prohibitive. Therefore, automating the translation of COBOL is a much safer option.

Migrating COBOL into the future

Automating the COBOL migration to C# or Java avoids error and saves time. It’s relatively inexpensive and has an excellent track record of success, even with highly complex legacy systems.

One government agency that can testify this success is Washington State Department of Licencing (WADOL). They used automation to rewrite 1.5 million lines of COBOL, powering a set of applications developed over 30 years on the mainframe.

The result saved the department more than $1million and avoided a $500,000 upgrade on the mainframe. It also eliminated the problem of finding COBOL developers, while providing a better mainstream system.

However, getting to a place where your business can achieve success like this can feel overwhelming when starting a COBOL migration  project. But there are a number of IT services specialising in this practice, that can offer support if your organisation feels they need it.

For example, customers can enlist Fujitsu’s PROGRESSION solution when modernizing. This is delivered as a service but provides 100% automated migration of the COBOL code to Java or C#, ready for Azure.

So, what are the benefits of coming off COBOL?

  • No runtime required
  • Enable new functionality
  • Utilize an Agile/ DevOps approach
  • Future-proofs your system
  • Becomes less reliant of dying skillsets

Many yet to unlock the benefits of a modern language system find themselves in a precarious position right now.

If I’m to offer any advice to those still using COBOL, it’s to work out what options you have as soon as possible.

Don’t wait until your last COBOL-trained colleagues hang up their coats and sail into the retirement sunset.

If you need support through COBOL migration before it’s too late, find out more here.