Micro Focus Works on COBOL Standardization, Training
Published: November 4, 2008
by Alex Woodie
When you think about COBOL, chances are good that Micro Focus isn't far from mind. In recent years, the English company has become the largest third-party provider of COBOL tools, and is the biggest backer of the programming language that traces its roots to 1959. Last week, Micro Focus announced steps it will take to address the looming skills shortage as baby boomers retire, and to help modernize and evolve COBOL standards to be more interoperable with XML.
While Java and .NET receive most of the attention these days, COBOL is actually the most widely used programming language in the world, according to many reports. A widely cited 1997 Gartner report found more than 200 billion lines of COBOL in active use, with about 5 billion new lines added every year. Much of this COBOL runs on IBM mainframes (along with a few very large System i installations) housed in the world's largest financial services companies. Seventy percent of the business for Merril Lynch (now owned by Bank of America), for example, runs on COBOL.
The deep entrenchment of COBOL in the world's business and financial systems is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, COBOL applications have proved to be robust and trustworthy over decades of use, and the language has proved at least somewhat adaptable, as shown by the roll-out of object-oriented COBOL in the 2002 standard and continued work with standards bodies like ISO.
On the other hand, much of the COBOL expertise resides with baby boomers--who are expected to begin retiring in droves in the next few years--and there is no large group of young COBOL programmers to replace them. There is also a deep-seated and longstanding aversion to the technology itself, which many view as a wordy, archaic language that should have been relegated to the scrap heap of IT history a long time ago. Supporters tried to address modernization concerns with the COBOL 2008 project, but it lost momentum years ago.
COBOL backers like Micro Focus and IBM have multi-pronged strategies to deal with these concerns, including pushing the continued evolution of COBOL through the standards process, and encouraging trade schools and universities to teach COBOL. Micro Focus also sells a range of tools that help organizations with large COBOL investments integrate and extend their COBOL applications to other technologies, such as .NET and Java. But without a forward-looking COBOL culture, Micro Focus makes less money.
Last week, Micro Focus said it's a good time for COBOL shops to prepare for the future. While the current economic crises and the mess on Wall Street (where much COBOL lives) would seem to hurt the chances for extended investment in COBOL, it is actually imperative that they do so now, the company says.
"As CIOs are forced to make some tough decisions on IT spending, it is critical that they modernize and extend the capabilities of the programming language that makes up the vast majority of their systems and applications," said Stuart McGill, CTO of Micro Focus. "In short, it's time to start viewing COBOL as an asset."
Micro Focus proposes one way to improve COBOL's standing in a service oriented architecture (SOA) is to make it more compatible with XML and XML documents, which are cross-platform compatible. The company has already implemented support for COBOL/XML support in its development and integration tools for Windows, Unix, and Linux.
Last week, Micro Focus said the COBOL standards committee at the International Standards Organization (ISO) "has based their proposed future COBOL XML technical report on the innovative support already provided by Micro Focus."
On the education front, Micro Focus last year launched the Academic ConnecTIONs (ACTION) Program, in which it provides schools free access to COBOL tools and teaching tools. Today, the ACTION program has 75 member universities in 14 countries, and Micro Focus expects more than 5,000 ACTION program graduates each year.
Without this fresh infusion of COBOL skills, the industry has a bleak future. Last week Micro Focus announced a new study that will look at the looming skills shortage. The study will be executed in conjunction with INSEAD, an international business school, and involve 450 CIOs, CFOs, and HR managers from businesses with revenues of $100 million or more. Participants will be asked to "to divulge the relevance of their core systems within business today and how confident they are that they have the processes in place to ensure the transfer of knowledge for the next generation of IT developers," Micro Focus says.
The study will also be looking at the skills of young people who are entering the profession. Micro Focus is at the forefront of encouraging school-leavers and graduates to choose a career in IT. Recently, the company announced that over 75 universities around the world are now signed to its Academic Connection (ACTION) Program.
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