Remember Cobol? If you don't, get reacquainted

When I mention the word Cobol to IT people, they look at me as if I just awoke from a 20-year coma. Many IT professionals consider Cobol, like Latin, to be a dead language. But rumors of Cobol's death have been greatly exaggerated. Companies can't ignore their Cobol software assets and need to incorporate them into their IT strategies.

IT people treat Cobol like a pariah. Most universities have dropped it from their curricula. Vendors shun the word Cobol in their marketing literature, even when Cobol tools are responsible for much of their revenue. Programmers who know Cobol tend to de-emphasize it on their résumés.

In spite of its reputation, Cobol remains a resilient force in IT. Dale Vecchio, research director at Gartner Group Inc., says there are roughly 180 billion lines of Cobol worldwide. This isn't surprising, given that Cobol has been around for more than 40 years. What is surprising is Gartner's comment in a February research note stating that 15 percent of all new application functionality through 2005 will be in Cobol.

In the same research note, Gartner stated that 80 percent of all deployed applications through 2004 will include legacy extensions. These extensions involve Web-based applications triggering legacy system transactions that perform operational business functions and access legacy databases. In January's issue of "The Cobol Report," Scott Ankrum wrote that CICS transaction volume grew from 20 billion a day in 1998 to 30 billion a day this year. This 50 percent growth in mainframe usage has largely been driven by Web-based systems accessing back-end Cobol applications.

Cobol is not only alive and well; it continues to evolve as well. It supports object orientation and Internet communication. Developers can also create Cobol components to run under Enterprise JavaBeans architectures. And Cobol remains one of the most portable languages. Collectively, this means that programmers can use Cobol for the development of strategic Web-based systems.

So, Cobol is still a valuable corporate asset. Here are five ways IT can leverage it during the next decade:

-- Protect your Cobol talent. The number of Cobol programmers is shrinking, with many headed for retirement. Consider bonus programs for them.

-- Inventory and document your Cobol portfolio. If your company loses Cobol talent, you must know which Cobol systems perform which business functions.

-- Leverage Cobol applications as a source of reusable components that can be used in the design and development of new applications. This may require a Cobol compiler upgrade.

-- Make sure analysts have access to tools to help them analyze and upgrade Cobol systems. There are some good Cobol reverse-engineering tools that also help derive Cobol components for reuse under Enterprise JavaBeans architectures.

-- Recognize the need for new Cobol skills to upgrade existing systems and build new functionality. You may need to enhance in-house training programs and rethink hiring plans.

IT may need to launch an awareness campaign to gain funding support for these action items. One way to do this is to remind management that the replacement cost of these systems, conservatively estimated at US$25 per line of code, is typically in the billions of dollars.

Cobol has outlived newer programming languages, hardware platforms, operating systems and Y2k. It's not going away and must be leveraged to meet strategic business requirements in a timely and effective manner. So, revisit the role Cobol plays in your corporate IT plans.

William M. Ulrich is a management consultant and President of Tactical Strategy Group Inc.