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Meet Cobol's hard core fans

Robert L. Mitchell | Aug. 22, 2014
These folks won't migrate. The reason probably isn't what you're thinking.

With the long-anticipated Cobol skills shortage starting to bite, many businesses have been steadily migrating applications off the mainframe. Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina has been doubling down.

The healthcare insurer processes nearly 10% of all healthcare claims in the U.S., and uses six top-of-the line IBM zEnterprise EC12 systems running millions of lines of optimized Cobol to process 19.4 billion online healthcare transactions annually. Its custom-built claims processing engine has been thoroughly modernized and kept up to date, says BCBS of SC vice president and chief technology officer Ravi Ravindra. "It was always in Cobol, and it always will be."

Cobol was designed to handle transactional workloads, and for large-scale transaction processing it still can't be beat, says Lonnie Emard, vice president of IT at BCBS of SC and president of the Consortium for Enterprise Systems Management (IT-oLogy), a nonprofit association of businesses, vendors and higher education institutions dedicated to helping build a talent pipeline for Cobol and other hard-to-fill IT-related disciplines.

"We are the low-cost provider," says Lonnie Emard, vice president of IT, Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina. "We couldn't do that if we weren't on the mainframe."

"We are the low-cost provider," Emard says. "We couldn't do that if we weren't on the mainframe."

Some organizations continue to run the business using Cobol on the mainframe simply because migrating all of that code to distributed computing systems without a compelling business benefit wouldn't be worth the trouble and expense. But some of the world's largest businesses see their Cobol infrastructure not as fading legacy technology but as a state-of-the-art, competitive weapon.

For both groups, the challenge lies in finding the next generation of talent to run those systems or risk being forced off the platform. "There's been no abatement in the number of people retiring," says Adam Burden, lead for advanced technology and architecture at Accenture, and the pipeline of new Cobol programming talent has been insufficient to address the impending outflow of retiring baby boomers.

As businesses continue to struggle with the problem, Accenture has been busy adding Cobol programmers to its consulting practice to fill the skills gap for its clients, Burden says, even as IBM, IT-oLogy and others attempt to train and recruit the next generation of mainframe talent.

The mainframe's stronghold
For many businesses in healthcare and other industries with large-scale transaction processing needs, including airlines, retail, banking and government, Cobol on the mainframe remains the core transaction engine. Several mainframe vendors remain in the market, including Unisys, Groupe Bull and Fujitsu, but IBM has the lion's share of the market today, with more than 90%. And 50 years after IBM released its first mainframe, the System/360, in April 1964, the company still has 3,500 mainframe customers.


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