COBOL And RPG Take Similar Roads To Revival
September 22, 2014 Dan Burger
COBOL and RPG are brothers of different mothers. They share many characteristics, not all of them bad. Both languages have powered enterprise-grade applications for a long time, relying on strength in their early years and stamina as time marched on. Both are capable of handling massive workloads, despite being classified as garage sale relics by promoters of lighter weight systems. And modernization strategies and academic initiatives have been designed to steer companies with COBOL and RPG dependencies into the future.
COBOL workloads on IBM midrange systems are not abundant. But they are out there. Ed Airey, product marketing manager for Micro Focus, has worked with some of those organizations. The similarities between COBOL and RPG are not lost on him. Micro Focus is the caretaker for COBOL, similar in many respects to IBM looking after IBM i.
When Airey meets with COBOL shops, it doesn’t make a great deal of difference what platform the COBOL is running on. But for the sake of an RPG comparison, I asked him to keep IBM i in mind during our phone conversation.
“The conversation I have with COBOL shops is about aligning IT with a specific business,” he began. “Is COBOL strategic going forward? For some it could be an issue of aligning with Java or .NET or moving to a platform with more flexibility. But for many companies going forward with IBM i is strategic. It’s about supporting the application, finding skilled developers, and aligning with a chosen architecture. Each company is different.”
Migrating off the IBM i platform comes up occasionally, he says, but there’s no sign of an accelerating trend.
What he does see, whether he is in discussions with an IBM i shop or a Unix or mainframe shop, are companies with big COBOL footprints, unlikely to be leaving their chosen platform and searching for a succession plan. The average development staff is 40 to 50 members with many of them 50-plus years old. They want to invest in COBOL, but they are uncertain if it’s the best plan for the future. They want to know about rewriting applications for modern, integrated IT environments and about the next generation of developer talent.
We could be talking about RPG, I tell him.
“Micro Focus is investing in modernizing COBOL. There’s new technology being developed to make COBOL apps easier to maintain and support and it’s creating a bridge to the future,” Airey says. “Connecting to mobile devices is popular and companies want to take advantage of the cloud. We’re building a path to new architectures that integrate COBOL with other parts of the organization that are using Java and .NET technologies.”
Like RPG, most of the programming talent graduating from college knows less about COBOL than it does about making apple sauce.
“Most talent does not know the language, but they know modern development tools like Visual Studio or Eclipse. More than 70 percent of professional developers are using one of those two IDEs,” Airey says. “The biggest learning curve is in learning to use the tools to build, change, compile, and test code. If the tool they use for COBOL is similar to what they used in college, they can maintain and support COBOL code.”
That’s where modernization meets academic initiative. Organizations that are tied to old development tools, like many RPG shops are, are distancing themselves from the new crop of programmers who know only visual programming tools.
Micro Focus runs its own COBOL academic initiative program. Airey says there has been a steady uptick in program membership during the past three years, which has taken the number of colleges teaching COBOL and using Micro Focus software and services from 120 to 350 worldwide. Most of those are in the United States and Canada.
Increasing awareness of the significance of COBOL and the demand for talent is responsible for expanding the academic initiative program, he says. To change the perception of COBOL among college administrators requires proof that COBOL skills are needed, jobs are available, and the salaries are good.
Airey says nearly all the shops he works with have some initiative to modernize COBOL. Those initiatives include mobile, cloud, moving to a new platform, moving to a new architecture, and integration with other systems. Those plans are either under way or are being planned for implementation in the next two to three years.
“I wouldn’t call what’s going on with COBOL a resurgence,” he says, “but there is an increased interest in learning the language and developing skills that use this technology.”