Forever COBOL

Companies are using a variety of tools and techniques to maintain--and modernize--their legacy applications.


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In the beginning, there was COBOL. These stalwart, usually mainframe-based, applications ran businesses for over 40 years. Today--surprise!--COBOL applications are with us still, whether they run on the same big iron or have migrated to more open environments. But these tried-and-true applications no longer have to present a green-screen face to the world. Indeed, many COBOL applications now have fancy graphical front ends, even Web capability. This is not your father's COBOL.

IT managers today are likely to be grappling with how to put a fresh face on the aging applications that have been running their business for decades. "Modernizing legacy applications is the key issue facing IT managers today because there's enormous pressure on organizations to change the way they run their business to meet the new paradigm for commerce. Modernizing legacy apps is at the heart of that," says Robert Mack, vice president and research area director in the IT business management group at GartnerGroup Inc., in Stamford, Conn.

Systems manager Joe Horlander and project leader Al Halligan, both on the manufacturing systems team at distiller Seagram Americas, wanted to avoid rewriting 1.8 million lines of code.
Photo: Jim Callaway/SABA
In companies around the globe, IT managers are taking varied approaches to modernizing their legacy applications (see chart, "Making the move") Some companies have unplugged the mainframe (or aging minicomputers such as Wang), rewritten their core applications, and moved to platforms such as UNIX or Microsoft Corp. Windows NT. Rewriting COBOL applications from the ground up is the costliest and most time-consuming option, says Pam Coker, president and CEO of Acucorp Inc., a maker of application transformation tools, in San Diego.

AT A GLANCE: Seagram Americas
The company: Maintaining legacy COBOL code on a UNIX platform

The problem: Maintaining legacy COBOL code on a UNIX platform

The solution: Unicon's conversion of the legacy COBOL to pure ACUCOBOL-GT

The IT infrastructure: Seagram's legacy computing environment consisted of an IBM ES9000 model R32 mainframe running VM/VSE with 150 attached terminals. The database was IBM's DL/1. AS/400 machines host the company's homegrown COBOL-based financial systems. The post-migration computing environment includes two Hewlett-Packard servers running HP/UX and Cincom's Supra Server database.

Another option is to convert the legacy COBOL applications to an open systems COBOL, such as Acucorp's ACUCOBOL-GT or Merant's Micro Focus to "rehost" COBOL applications on another platform. Many IT managers believe this gives them the advantage of a lower-cost hardware platform while maintaining their familiar COBOL applications (see "The best of both worlds," below). And they can make their users happy by putting in an easy-to-use graphical user interface (GUI) on top of the COBOL code. Many companies are rejuvenating their legacy applications, using the power and functionality of the new COBOL languages like ACUCOBOL, says Jim Garden, director of technical services for Technology Business Research Inc., a market research company in Hampton, N.H. "It's a highly cost-effective approach to the problem of what to do with legacy applications."

Some companies (especially those in the financial services sector) would never dream of bidding their mainframes adieu--for them, the mainframe is simply the most reliable and robust computing platform around for processing financial transactions. Since the Internet is becoming an inescapable aspect of doing business, these companies are finding ways to Web-enable their mainframe-based COBOL applications (see chart "New lease on life," below). A whole raft of tools have blossomed in this space, from Ottawa-based Simware Inc.'s Salvo to London-based Intelligent Environments Group PLC's Amazon Integrator.

The message is there are lots of ways--some less expensive than others--to let a little fresh air and sunlight into the fusty, but reliable legacy code that has run businesses for these many decades. Read on for ideas and inspiration.

The best of both worlds

Joe Horlander gets to have his cake and eat it, too.

Horlander, manager of North American manufacturing systems for distilled spirit giant Seagram Americas (a subsidiary of $9.7 billion The Seagram Co. Ltd., New York City), knew he wanted to move his applications off an ES9000 R32 mainframe from IBM Corp., in Armonk, N.Y. But with over 1.8 million lines of code in the core manufacturing, shipping, and back-office applications, Horlander also knew it would be prohibitively expensive to rewrite the applications for the UNIX platform, from Hewlett-Packard Co., in Palo Alto, Calif., which had been chosen as the corporate standard. So, he opted to "rehost" his COBOL applications to run on HP/UX. Horlander contracted with Unicon Conversion Technologies Inc., of Mission Viejo, Calif., which used its own automated tools to convert legacy COBOL to pure ACUCOBOL-GT from Acucorp.

The bonus: Horlander gets to keep the COBOL applications that his programmers know so well, but run them in a UNIX environment that is much more cost effective.

"The hardware and software costs are much higher on the mainframe," says Horlander, at the Seagram plant in Lawrenceburg, Ind.

Horlander certainly isn't the only one looking to maintain his legacy applications even while moving off the mainframe. Many companies are finding this to be a logical route, says Acucorp's Coker.

"CIOs now realize their COBOL applications are very valuable. They've reinvested in them with Y2K [remediation projects] and now they want to find a low-cost way to modernize them," says Coker.

Enhancing COBOL applications after conversion using a tool like ACUCOBOL is "one of the easiest ways to put a new face on an old application," says Garden of Technology Business Research. Adding a GUI to an application for the first time has the added benefit of reducing the skill level required of the computer operator, he says. "The users don't need any special training, unlike the old green-screen applications," says Garden.

No-brainer ROI

Seagram and its diversified business units had been gradually moving away from the mainframe to HP/UX for a number of years. Where divisions all over the United States and in Canada once had their own individual mainframes, the corporate division decided in 1995 to consolidate mainframe operations onto a single machine. Horlander's group began running all of its applications on a mainframe located at the company's Universal Studios unit in Hollywood, Calif. Due to the high transaction volume running on that server, application performance sometimes suffered. And users in the Lawrenceburg, Ind.-based warehouse shipping operation are notoriously unforgiving of unavailable systems.

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