Y2K must have been the non-event of the century. More than that, it delivered on virtually none of the popular and dire predictions that prevailed at the time. One of these was that Cobol was in its death throes, soon to be replaced by more modern application development languages. App developers were advised to seek out other careers and acquire new skills.
Micro Focus Presales Solutions Consulting Director Paul Cripsey says: "Throughout 1999, all businesses were counting down to Y2K and showing various degrees of readiness. What many people aren't aware of, is that a lot of software companies paid the price for this non-event, and did so for at least three years after the millennium bug failed to bite."
Gary de Menezes, Country General Manager, Sub-Saharan Africa at Micro Focus, adds: "Over this period, we saw an initial shift away from Cobol as an application development language and new languages being introduced such as C++, C# and Java. Despite this, around 70% of the global largest companies still run their core applications on Cobol today. None of the other languages can match the robustness of the Cobol logic."
Another reason for the survival of Cobol is that the cost of rewriting core applications is prohibitive. Cripsey says: "Had companies gone this route 15 years ago, they might have gotten away with it. In fact, some did. But today the cost could sink a business."
In South Africa, the majority of large organisations including public sector, financial institutions and insurance companies initially had home-grown applications that were developed using Cobol. For these sectors particularly, there was just too much risk attached to rewriting these applications in another language, says De Menezes.
For these and other reasons, Cobol just carried on working quietly in the background while the number of developers with Cobol skills kept decreasing. Eventually businesses sat with the dilemma of having their business critical applications in a language that everybody said was dying, yet it clearly wasn't. De Menezes says: "No business can afford to simply halt operations while all of its Cobol applications are rewritten. Then there's the issue of who's actually going to do it, in view of the skills shortage around Cobol. Seventeen years ago, most larger organisations had in-house developers. Today, this function is largely outsourced - and often to developers located overseas.
How do you control that process from afar?"
Cobol steps into an agile world
As businesses were faced with this quandary, a couple of things started happening about five years ago, says Cripsey, to change the perception of Cobol, as well as the - by now - outdated nature of the language itself. "Software companies like ours embarked on a major research and development drive and saw an opportunity to invest in Cobol and modernise it. Today, we're able to address businesses' needs for things like agility, cloud and mobile without having to get rid of Cobol."
Cobol is by its very nature siloed and monolithic; not easy to interface with or connect to, continues Cripsey. "The challenge was to make it accessible from other development languages so that you could get the both worlds: the speed and robustness of Cobol combined with a modern user interface." He draws a motoring analogy, "You get a solid, high-performance engine in a state-of-the-art body."
De Menezes says: "As a result of this ability to integrate Cobol with the new modern development world, we're seeing 80% of customers who already have Cobol, increasing their usage thereof." He cites a Gartner study that says that 90% of applications in businesses today will still be around in 2023, and 70% of those are written in Cobol. "This wouldn't have been possible if software companies hadn't invested in application modernisation (which fundamentally relates to Cobol) and mainframe modernisation."
De Menezes says the software business Syspro is an excellent showcase of how a small South African company has become a global player in the right hand magic quadrant of Gartner by seeing the opportunities inherent in getting Cobol to interface with applications written in other development languages. "Syspro demonstrates the technological skills and capabilities to be found in South Africa as well as our spirit of entrepreneurship, not to mention the possibilities of application modernisation. Now you have applications available on the cloud, on devices, they look great but the whole back end and engine is Cobol."
"We have to show businesses that Cobol can still be sexy, hip and trendy, that it is possible to take the core part (i.e. Cobol) and wrap it with niceties and make it modern. We're almost making Cobol retro in that it's becoming cool again. And it's working, we're seeing massive demand for this approach."
What about the skills?
It's all well and good to talk about modernising Cobol and getting it to interface with other development languages, says De Menezes, but you still need the Cobol skills base to grow in order to do all of this. "The majority of today's Cobol developers are in their mid-40s, if not older. We've identified a two-pronged approach to this dilemma."
The first is to cross skill developers in other languages onto Cobol. The second is to entice people back to Cobol by encouraging young learners to consider it as a career path. To meet both of these requirements, talks are underway with one of the country's leading universities with a view to establishing a Cobol academy where students and programmers can acquire Cobol skills.
Cripsey concludes by saying: "Cobol doesn't have to be the monster in the closet that nobody wants to deal with. Businesses need to understand what they have and how they can modernise it and make it work for them."