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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.

Some 23 of the world's top 25 retailers, 92 of the top 100 banks, and the 10 largest insurers all entrust core operations to Cobol programs running on IBM mainframes, says Deon Newman, vice president, IBM System z. Since 2010, around 50 to 75 customers have left the mainframe fold, IBM says, while some 270 of IBM's 3,500 mainframe customers have come aboard as new clients since then, Newman says.

For these mainframe-centric businesses, the Cobol application suite that runs the heart of the business isn't going anywhere. "But they still need to deal with the declining Cobol workforce . . . to keep these systems viable for the next decade or two," says Dale Vecchio, research vice president at Gartner Inc.

As for the other 90% of businesses running mainframes today, Vecchio thinks the Cobol brain drain will be the catalyst for more extensive migrations off the platform, through rewrites, moves to packaged applications or recompiling and re-hosting Cobol on distributed computing platforms.

After years of foot dragging, the looming Cobol brain drain will force many organizations into making a decision -- one way or the other -- within the next three to five years. "Increasingly, I see this transition happening," Vecchio says. "Waiting isn't going to make this any cheaper, and it isn't going to reduce the risk."

You don't just walk away from one million lines of Cobol code. Jim Veglahn. program manager, United Life Insurance

United Life Insurance Co. falls into the other 90%. The midsize business migrated off its Unisys mainframe several years ago, but didn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. It kept more than 1,000 Cobol programs that run the business, recompiling those for Windows using Micro Focus Visual Cobol, says program manager Jim Veglahn. "You don't just walk away from one million lines of Cobol code," he says. And while it's harder to fill open positions than it was a few years ago, Veglahn says his strategy is to "stay on Cobol and train as needed."

But the demographic shift will, in the long term, make Cobol "almost unsalvageable," says Vecchio. "The only debate is the slope of the decline."

BCBS's Emard disagrees. "Can we keep up with the demand for Cobol talent? Absolutely. The supply needs to be increased with the knowledge that these jobs are not going away," he says.

Vecchio says the number of Gartner clients that want to talk about mainframe migrations is up sharply. "I had 200 mainframe migration inquiries last year, and I have been speaking with thousands of mainframe shops about this whole migration question," he says. Mainframes eventually will be marginalized to only the very largest organizations in the market, Vecchio adds. "They're the only ones who can invest in initiatives and create their own training programs," he says.


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