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Working in the COBOL mine

Developing with Legacy Systems – Part 2

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The most common applications sector where the integration of long-standing legacy applications is a still vital requirement is, of course, the broad reaches of the financial services community. When such an application has established itself and proved not just its capabilities but its reliability and overall efficiency to the business those businesses are loath to change it. In the finance market, "if it ain’t broke don’t fix it" is still a good maxim where changing an application, let alone conducting a rip and replace exercise just because there is a newer alternative, carries with it the significant risks that any change can induce.

One of the most important languages underpinning many such applications is COBOL and, despite its age, it remains at the heart of many business critical applications. Analysts, Gary Barnett, Research Director of Ovum (quoted here) reported in 2005 that COBOL accounted for 90 per cent of all financial transactions, and most finance companies are well aware of its importance to them. But it is also the language of many other business applications (Barnett estimates 75 per cent of transactions generally) and many enterprises may be less aware that they have it as part of their IT infrastructure.

COBOL is also a language that has attracted much attention from software vendors looking to extend its reach to cover new platforms and environments and, since the earliest days of the classic Wintel-architected PC servers, Micro Focus has been driving just that process. The company now has a broad range of tools and solutions for most business and applications developer needs, such as Micro Focus Revolve, which supports the first stage in legacy modernisation, enabling users to understand existing legacy systems and the potential impact of changes to them. The latest version, V.7, supports SOA and new compliance initiatives by helping developers to identify and expose business processes buried deep inside legacy systems.

COBOL futures

The key to the future with legacy COBOL applications is giving developers the flexibility to port applications to a range of different platforms. Micro Focus provides this with Studio for COBOL developers, which incorporates a comprehensive COBOL development environment for Windows, UNIX and Linux. The development environments support both the .NET Framework and Java EE, and Micro Focus provides COBOL compilers for almost every platform if you wish to take the re-deployment route – COBOL is the most portable of all languages, not excluding Java.

Micro Focus’ experience demonstrates a particular truth of legacy modernisation, namely that development staff will need to either learn to understand the working legacy systems in current use, together with the service-oriented technologies of the future, or find consultants that can provide such understanding. They certainly need to treat the advocates of "rip and replace" modernisation with caution, for often they only understand the latest "one size fits all" technology they’re promoting.

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Next page: Risk mitigation

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