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Thursday, 28 April 2011 13:58

Lingering legacy keeps Cobol coding


Cobol may be well into its 50s but like any good Baby Boomer it's clinging on - thanks in large part to lingering legacy.  A random sampling of online jobs boards today turned up eight Cobol jobs in NSW, 24 in Victoria, and a lonely single role in Canberra.

West Australia and Queensland meanwhile seem to have come off the boil Cobol-wise.

A just released survey of the Australian Cobol market found that access to Cobol skills remains a major challenge for large enterprises with almost two thirds of respondents to a survey conducted in March saying they did not expect to cut their Cobol workforces before 2013. That certainly seems the case for most of the big banks as they slowly roll out fresh core banking platforms (with the exception of CBA which is now reasonably advanced).

Employers it appears are mainly plugging skills gaps by cross skilling .net or Java developers according to MicroFocus, the British based software company which still champions Cobol and also conducted the Australian Cobol users survey. It claims enterprise Cobol users are also bringing in people on 457 Visas and enticing retirees back into the workforce.

A perhaps surprising 9 per cent of respondents said they recruited Cobol programmers from universities. Professor Ron Weber, dean of the Faculty of IT at Monash University, which has traditionally led the field in turning out Australian IT graduates said that while some elements of Cobol were still taught in universities, it was mainly now considered a historical language.

'Cobol is not used extensively for development,' he said.

MicroFocus' website begs to differ, claiming that; 'Cobol is the language of choice for building scalable, stable and reliable business applications. It is the engine that powers modern business and finance applications worldwide.'

Although he acknowledged the millions of lines of Cobol code still entwined in legacy systems Professor Weber said that its role as a development language had been almost entirely overtaken by other newer languages. Nevertheless he said that enterprises which needed programmers to maintain Cobol code would be able to quickly convert a smart graduate programmer into a Cobol programmer.

If of course a new graduate can be lured into a career in legacy code maintenance instead of app development.

While MicroFocus has a vested interest in keeping legacy systems running (last year it acknowledged a plan to support the continued teaching of Cobol at Indian universities) it is hedging its bets, pushing ahead with solutions intended to allow legacy systems to be modernised.

Earlier this month it announced a collaboration with Microsoft to create so called Reference Environments which can be used to demonstrate how core mainframe applications can be migrated to a Windows platform running on modern servers.

Just as modern languages have eroded Cobol's dominance in enterprise scale development, so servers have tilted at mainframes.

Last October BMC Software released its fifth global mainframe survey which found that the number of mainframe sites in Australia had dropped from almost 120 in 1997 to 40, with expectations that it will eventually settle at around 35 sites by 2014.

Another flesh wound for the Cobol crowd.

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