Mainframe Modernization Challenge: It’s Not About COBOL, It’s About Mainframe Skills and Resources

In the fast-evolving landscape of digital transformation, which is shifting exponentially into the artificial intelligence (AI) era, organizations are accelerating their mainframe modernization journey to…

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Neil Fowler

October 30, 20236 minute read

In the fast-evolving landscape of digital transformation, which is shifting exponentially into the artificial intelligence (AI) era, organizations are accelerating their mainframe modernization journey to innovate and stay competitive. While many with valuable legacy applications on the mainframe perceive the primary challenge to be the archaic COBOL code, a closer look reveals that the real bottleneck lies in the scarcity of mainframe skills and resources.  

To tackle this issue, organizations need to consider decoupling legacy applications from proprietary mainframe platforms. Opening applications to commodity platforms and the cloud brings tremendous opportunity to innovate at substantially lower costs. 

Locked into Mainframe: A Barrier to Innovation? 

Mainframes have long been the backbone of critical business applications. These systems, though robust, have historically been rigid and costly to maintain. The scarcity and costliness of mainframe skills and resources are exacerbated by the desire to embrace cloud deployments. Modernization, therefore, becomes imperative to leverage the agility and cost-efficiency offered by commodity platforms and the cloud.   

As a result, the challenge of modernization becomes more complex when applications remain tied to the mainframe. In today’s multi-cloud world there are many different pathways to modernizing mainframe applications. You can move them to be cloud native, you can modernize them in place with hybrid cloud – there’s no single answer. However, by allowing applications to run on commodity hardware in the cloud while keeping much of the original code intact, a world of opportunities unfolds.  

Operational Savings and Innovation Unleashed

One of the immediate benefits of transitioning from mainframes to commodity systems is the massive operational cost savings. Additionally, developers gain access to state-of-the-art development tools, paving the way for the adoption of DevOps and agile practices. This accelerates the delivery of new functionality to both employees and customers. 

Instead of rewriting applications from scratch, building upon existing assets is the fastest path to innovation. Application rewrites are amongst the most complex and challenging IT projects and, more importantly, unnecessary. OpenText’s Micro Focus Enterprise Suite offers a unique COBOL modernization solution, transforming standard COBOL code into Java bytecode without altering the source code itself. This approach offers several advantages, including lower risk, streamlined maintenance, and optimized COBOL code execution within the Java Virtual Machine – offering flexibility in implementing new functionality. 

Success Stories 

The success of this approach is exemplified by AG Insurance. The customer strategically leveraged its COBOL assets with clear onward modernization goals and saw 75 per cent operational cost savings and faster time to market with new customer offerings. Using Micro Focus Enterprise solutions by OpenText™, we supported AG’s large-scale mainframe modernization for an innovative and open environment processing 14 million transactions a day. Read the AG Insurance success story.  

Additionally, FIS, a major financial services provider, leveraged OpenText’s technology to reinvent their 1980s mainframe application into a highly scalable, cloud-based architecture that manages trillions of dollars in funds for their customers. Learn more.  

Skills Challenge: Not About COBOL 

For over 25 years, the industry has pointed fingers at COBOL as the root of the mainframe modernization skills challenge. However, this accusation misses the mark. The real challenge is the sheer scale of these COBOL applications. Whether written in Java or COBOL, large, long-standing business applications present the same complexity in understanding their intricacies. OpenText’s Enterprise Analyzer (EA) solution simplifies this issue, providing developers with crucial application knowledge. 

To address the COBOL skills gap concerns expressed by many IT leaders, OpenText recently introduced Visual COBOL 9.0 and Enterprise Suite 9.0. These new releases are designed to empower the next generation of application developers while helping IT leaders expand reach and scale of their digital transformation projects and build for the future.  

Released as part of OpenText’s quarterly Cloud Editions innovations, these COBOL and mainframe application modernization innovations include new extensions for the COBOL programming language. This helps onboard and nurture the next generation of developer talent, alongside new ways to modernize COBOL business logic with Java.  

Also released, the new free Micro Focus™ COBOL Fundamentals course with digital certification will enable today’s developers to learn COBOL – in just one day. It’s a game-changer for organizations needing to support and digitize mission-critical core business applications written in COBOL and running on the mainframe.  

AI in Application Modernization 

Integration of AI-assisted coding is emerging across all programming languages, including COBOL. Sizeable evidence tells us rewriting COBOL applications from scratch, whether manually or through automated tools, often fails to meet budget expectations and timelines. 

As an example, a one-to-one re-write of COBOL to Java does not necessarily deliver new business value. The outcome is essentially the same – but in a different language. There’s little to no net new functionality gain or end user value produced. In addition, because of the conversion, you’ve now introduced a large testing process to ensure there are no functionality gaps between the prior and new environments. The added cost for the business comes in here – systems testing, user acceptance testing, and performance testing. Without a specific and substantial business value gain, a rewrite is both an expensive and risky proposition.  

Successful applications of AI will help engineers leverage existing functionality and reuse this with minimal change to access new IT architectures in the cloud and through cloud native services. This has been the foundation of the Micro Focus COBOL modernization approach that has seen thousands of customers continually modernize applications through each IT innovation wave.   

Deploying applications on modern platforms like the Cloud enables the use of AI-based operations and monitoring techniques. These enhance security, system availability, and performance, contributing to a modernized end-to-end experience. OpenText supports our customers’ strategy to move COBOL or mainframe applications to Cloud as part of digital transformation and AI initiatives. 

Leading the Way Forward 

OpenText’s Micro Focus COBOL tools, combined with our information solutions, have consistently led the way in COBOL modernization. As organizations continue to navigate the challenges of legacy systems, the real issue lies in the mainframe itself, not in COBOL. By embracing innovative solutions and leveraging AI, businesses can propel themselves into the future of digital transformation while preserving their invaluable COBOL application investment.  

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Neil Fowler

Neil Fowler is the Senior Vice President Engineering of the Application Modernization and Connectivity Product Group for OpenText. While in his numerous leadership roles, he has been at the forefront of product architecture and strategy across COBOL, Mainframe Solutions, CORBA and Host Connectivity. He has a degree in Physics and Computer Science from Brunel University.

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