Grace Hopper: An IT pioneer

For every hot new technology that comes along, so does the perception that government agencies will face a shortage of individuals with the right skills to support that technology. For years, concerns swirled around the need for more workers skilled in cloud and mobile technologies. This was followed by big data, and the belief that agencies would not be able to fully leverage exploding data volume without first growing the ranks of in-house data scientists. More recently, it is the dearth of cyber security IT professionals that agencies have set their sights on.

2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the mainframe computer, and many years on from the mainframe's predicted demise, nearly every single federal government agency still depends heavily on "big iron" to run core operations. And any discussion of core systems such as mainframe must also include COBOL, the programming language introduced in 1959 by Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. COBOL powers 70 percent of all business transactions – everything from ATMs to point of sale systems and filling of healthcare prescriptions.

COBOL is equally critical to government agency efforts to modernize their so-called legacy IT systems and core databases that occupy approximately 70 percent of the federal government's $82 billion IT budget. For example, the Navy uses COBOL to manage the financial and cost planning for fleet maintenance, to calculate sailors' advancement results and many other tasks.

Given its critical and enduring role in running mission-critical IT systems and applications, there are several reasons that agencies must continue to devote resources (skills, technology, budget) to COBOL and mainframe.

The risk of 'rip and replace'

For many government agencies, there can be a temptation to rip and replace existing IT systems and software in favor of the purported latest and greatest technologies. And while there are cases when it makes sense to fully replace a legacy system, this path is increasingly unfeasible due to tight agency budgets.

Commodore Grace M. Hopper, USN (covered).
Commodore Grace M. Hopper, USN (covered).

In an April 25 blog post, Terry Halvorsen, acting DOD CIO, stated, "In many cases, however, maintaining an older system that fully supports our mission makes more sense than upgrading it or buying a new system that runs the risk of degrading our mission and requires a large investment. The DON [Department of the Navy] and industry still use a programming language developed in 1959 to operate major business functions in finance and personnel. In fact, nearly three quarters of the world's business transactions are done in that venerable language, COBOL. Now with an estimated 200 billion lines of code, it still works."

Each agency's business and IT challenges include a set of unique variables, and as budget-sensitive agencies seek to repurpose their existing systems and modernize core applications, ripping and replacing IT infrastructure at great expense and effort is not always the answer.

Agencies cannot wait around for COBOL-trained graduates

COBOL has gained an undeserved reputation as uncool and outdated relative to where high-paying developer jobs are trending – a perception that might explain why only 27 percent of Universities teach COBOL according to a 2013 Vanson Bourne survey.

For agencies looking to build a more robust COBOL skills pipeline, creating a more structured dialogue with academic institutions producing the talent can help. As is the case with other elements of the government workforce, an older generation of skilled workers will eventually retire and take their programming knowledge with them. Expanding and deepening the ranks of young IT professionals with programming skills needed to keep core systems operating is a logical focus area.

As important to addressing any concerns around maintaining the right mix of IT skills is the need to evaluate and adopt innovative COBOL tools that now make the language accessible to a broader range of IT staff, including non-COBOL developers who are versed in modern programming languages.

COBOL in a Java world

COBOL has been around for a considerable period of time, however, a perception exists that the Java programming language is 'modern' and more suitable to current agency requirements. Java itself is more than 20 years old, and while it performs well for mobility requirements, it can lead to higher technical debt (defined as the eventual consequences of poor system design, software architecture, or software development within a codebase). According to CAST Software's CRASH report, the estimated technical debt of Java is $5.42 per line of code, compared to $1.26 per line of code for COBOL.

Ultimately, agencies evaluating Java and COBOL do not need to make an either-or decision, as using one does not require replacing the other. If agency CIOs and IT decision makers remain attuned to technology, budget and staffing requirements impacting their IT modernization efforts, COBOL and the mainframe will remain essential to the agency mission for decades to come.

David Vano is Sr. Vice President, Federal Business Unit at Micro Focus,a leading global provider of application modernization software

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