Global COBOL Growth Drives Revaluation of “Legacy” Assets

February 16, 2022

Alex Woodie

COBOL is supposed to be a dead language, related (mostly) to the IBM mainframe, which is also dead. But according to a recent Micro Focus survey, the amount of COBOL code in the world is increasing. What happens in COBOL?

Micro focus mandated the research group Vanson Bourne to assess the state of COBOL use around the world, and the results of this research were published on February 4.

The answer: between 775 and 850 billion COBOL lines. According to Micro Focus, this far exceeds previous estimates, which were around 200 to 300 billion rows.

“800 billion lines of code reinforces the importance and continued investment in this most trusted enterprise system technology,” Ed Airey, COBOL product marketing manager for Micro Focus, said in a press release.

While the general market perception is that the amount of COBOL is decreasing as mainframe applications are retired, this does not appear to match the reality detected by Vanson Bourne. The research group found that 48% of respondents expect their COBOL volume to increase over the next 12 months.

Additionally, 52% said they expect COBOL applications to work in their organization for at least the next 10 years, while more than 80% said COBOL will still be used in their workshops when they will retire.

Changes in COBOL usage are driven by several factors, with “customer requirements” (44%) leading the way, followed by “future IT strategy” at 41% and “business portfolio alignment”. ‘applications with new technologies’ at 35%.

Over 90% of respondents in Vanson Bourne’s survey say COBOL applications are mission-critical to their organizations, somewhat contradicting the prevailing notion that organizations are eager to shut down these systems because they are old and no longer meet the needs.

Modernizing existing COBOL code (as opposed to “pull and replace”) is the preferred way forward by 64% of respondents, while 72% say modernization is a legitimate business strategy.

COBOL’s 800 billion row figure is an estimate, of course. For this reason, Vanson Bourne let respondents qualify their answers regarding how much COBOL code was hiding in their stores.

The results of this analysis show that 40% were very confident and 46% were somewhat confident in their estimates. Even those who expressed some skepticism in their estimates indicated that they thought their answer was within 10% (for what that’s worth).

Vanson Bourne – who did not disclose the number of people who took the survey, but said they came from 49 countries and tended to work in larger stores with at least 1,000 employees – took the answers and weighted them according to their relative level of certainty. He then extrapolated the estimated volume of COBOL code using estimates of the market size of the various installed bases for the most popular COBOL platforms.

Another interesting figure from the report is the platform on which companies run COBOL. It’s no surprise that the mainframe plays an important role in the COBOL world, and data from Vanson Bourne shows that 43% of COBOL code runs on z/OS. Platform number two? Microsoft Windows, surprisingly, with a 31% share.

The long tail of COBOL users diminishes from there, with IBM z/VSE-VM and IBM’s z Cloud occupying the third and fourth slots, followed by several non-mainframe environments, including Red Hat on IntelMicrosoft Azure, AWSand IBM i, which came in 8th with a 5% share.

So what does this have to do with IBM i? Well, one of the side effects of the pandemic seems to be that it has rattled IT services, especially in sectors that have seen a significant increase in demand, such as government, retail, and manufacturing. As key underlying business systems have been strained, organizations have accelerated their modernization schedules.

Due to similarities in architectures, many organizations that run COBOL on IBM Z and mainframe systems often consider the IBM i server as the next best place to run. “It’s supported the same on iSeries as it is on mainframe,” said Jerry Thomas, vice president of migration services at Other computer systemsspecialized in COBOL migrations to IBM i.

As mainframe stores look to find new homes for their COBOL applications, IBM i is expected to inherit some of them, at least temporarily. Eradani CEO Dan Magid recently noted what appears to be renewed interest in COBOL activity on IBM i, which appears to be somewhat confirmed by market data collected by Help systems.

According to Walter Camp, Cothern’s vice president of business development, many mainframe customers looking to repatriate COBOL applications will move those applications to IBM i for a few years before deciding what to do next. It saves them time deciding whether modernizing, completely rewriting, or abandoning the in-house system for a packaged ERP system makes the most sense.

“If you convert one of these COBOL programs, it will take about a year,” says Camp. “If you’re rewriting, it can take three or four years to develop the same apps and get them working, because there’s a time and a cost. Or if you want to change the language, there are tools that will change the language.

“So you only have those multipliers,” he adds. “And the cost is time. So instead of being a million dollar project, you end up with $2 million. If you can switch languages, you can earn up to $4 million before you load everything. It’s a function of what you want? What is your business objective? How much can you invest in it? How much time do you have? And most companies don’t have four years to develop new code. They better just receive a package honestly.

The folks at Micro Focus, which develops some of the most widely used COBOL compilers and tools on the market, clearly see great value in these aging COBOL applications. The Vanson Borne survey indicates that 70% of COBOL users would rather modernize COBOL applications than rewrite or abandon them.

That means COBOL will be in a strong position for at least the next 10 years, says Chris Livesey, senior vice president of application modernization and connectivity at Micro Focus.

“As we see the attitudes around the modernization of COBOL with changes to where and how it should be delivered and how its use continues to grow, COBOL’s benchmarks as a solid digital technology appear to be set for another decade” , Livesey said in a press release. . “With 60 years of experience supporting mission-critical applications and enterprise systems, COBOL continues to evolve as a flexible and resilient computing language that will remain relevant and important to businesses around the world.”


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