Is COBOL on IBM i Experiencing a Renaissance?
January 26, 2022 Alex Woodie
There is no doubt that RPG is the dominant language when it comes to IBM i development. But there are some indications that more interest in COBOL may be brewing in IBM i circles, particularly among customers of a certain size and industry segment.
COBOL has been on the mind of Dan Magid, the CEO of data integration software developer Eradani. That will happen when large banks come out of the blue and ask you to support COBOL in your product, which Eradani did with its data integration middleware for IBM i.
“What’s been interesting for us is, we first started talking about COBOL support in September, and suddenly now we’re getting all these requests,” Magid said. “We started to get these calls from people who were doing COBOL development. And the issue for them is they sometimes feel that COBOL is an afterthought for a lot of the tools that are out there, that there isn’t a lot of support for COBOL. So we figured, okay, well, this could be a great area for us if we do the work.”
The Emeryville, California, company did the work in its API enablement software, which you can read about here. Now Eradani has four COBOL on IBM i clients that it’s actively working with, and it has a list of about 100 more that could be interested in the product.
The vast majority of these COBOL on IBM i customers are in the financial services industry, including banking and insurance, Magid says. Many of these companies arrived on the IBM i platform by migrating their applications from IBM mainframes, where they were originally developed, he says.
“There’s a lot of them – in fact, it may be the vast majority of them are shops that had a mainframe at one point, and that’s why they have COBOL,” says the midrange veteran, who was formerly the CEO of Aldon and an executive at Rocket Software. “They built COBOL on the mainframe and then they moved to the IBM i and they ported the code.”
Magid says he was surprised to read in HelpSystems’ 2021 IBM i Marketplace Survey that 19 percent of IBM i developers say they use COBOL, “which actually higher than I would have thought.” That represented a 5 percent jump from 2020, according to past Marketplace Surveys. The percentage of IBM i developers saying they work with COBOL was very steady between 2016 and 2020, with a narrow range between 13.6 percent and 15.6 percent, before climbing to 19 percent in 2021. With the 2022 edition of the survey due out next week, it will be interesting to see if the COBOL trend continues.
COBOL has been in the mainstream news lately, but not for good reasons. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many state and local governments came under fire for the slow response times of applications for applying for unemployment benefits, among other uses. Administrators sometimes put the blame on aging mainframe applications running – you guessed it – COBOL. But COBOL isn’t the problem; data is, argues IT Jungle author Brad Thomas. Vic Rozek, a columnist for this publication, put the blame elsewhere: on stingy politicians who refused to upgrade aging systems.
Whether it’s a momentary blip in the data or the beginning of a real trend, there figures to be more COBOL shops coming to IBM i from aging mainframe environs. That’s because IBM i just happens to be the most logical and the most popular destination for COBOL on System z shops, says Walter Camp, the vice president of business development at Cothern Computer Systems, a Jackson, Mississippi, company that specializes in COBOL migrations.
“We’re seeing this: It’s a mandate from the from the chairman’s office – get rid of the mainframe,” Camp says. “So they quickly look for a place to put the workload, and Power makes a lot of sense, especially iSeries.”
A typical migration of a z/OS COBOL applications involves around 2,000 programs and about 3 to 4 million lines of COBOL, Camp says. The migration is typically completed within a year, and the newly minted IBM i customers save about 60 to 70 percent of what they were formerly spending on IBM mainframe hardware, software, and support.
“The i is the quickest path there,” Camp continues. “Most of what we do is IBM Enterprise COBOL to iSeries or AIX. Those are our two recommendations, because it’s simple, it’s a pretty clean conversion, and it always works. It always works. And that’s key.”
Cothern has probably done about 200 to 300 COBOL migrations over the past 40 years, Camp says. Currently, the company has a handful of clients that are working on moving mainframe COBOL applications to IBM i, he adds. He’s not seeing a big uptick in the number of migrations to IBM i, but he says the migrations that he’s doing now are bigger than average.
“Every time we convert a large client who has 5,000 programs, 10 million lines of code, there’s more interest because you got one more guy,” Camp says. “There’s continued interest, for sure.”
Camp doubts there’s much new development occurring on IBM i in COBOL, if any. In fact, in most cases, the COBOL doesn’t run on the IBM i server for very long.
“The iSeries is not the end state. It’s like a temporary state for five years, and then they’re going to go somewhere else,” Camp says. “That’s the plan. So I don’t know anybody who is writing new code in COBOL. It’s maintaining the existing legacy code.”
If there’s a big surge of COBOL coming to IBM i, then it hasn’t trickled up yet to Alison Butterill, the IBM i product manager. Perhaps there’s been a little uptick in COBOL customers amidst a small but steady stream.
“At this moment, when we when we don’t normally hear from any of them, you know four or five is huge number,” she says. “We’ve hearing from them more regularly.”
But that doesn’t mean Rochester is ignoring the developers. “We’ve always been interested in COBOL,” she says. She points out that, back in 2019, for the first time in many years, IBM enhanced the COBOL compiler, introducing new ways to manage storage with the ALLOCATE statement, the addition of a new EXIT statement, and enhancements to INITIALIZE statements. She would like to do more work like that, if the COBOL users are game.
“If you hear of more COBOL customers who have requirements, they should be submitting RFEs immediately, because they certainly are the more quiet group of customers,” Butterill says. “It would be great to get some more requirements from them.”