COBOL in the cloud? Sure. Why not?

COBOL in the cloud

Well, it had to happen. In another sign of cloud’s rapid progress to full respectability, today we learn that if you want to migrate your mainframe to the cloud without risk, you can. Yes – we do mean COBOL for the cloud.

Given that there are a claimed 220 billion lines of the stuff out there, maybe that is an eminently sensible move. And patently the company that’s beamingly proud of the move, development environment specialists Micro Focus, thinks so, as does Gartner: "Taking COBOL to new platforms like .NET, JVM or the cloud supports a growing trend toward developers choosing the best language for the job, independent of the choice of best deployment platform to use," says one of its Research VPs, Mark Driver.

"[This] combines the productivity and innovation of the industry’s leading development environments with COBOL’s business-tested performance. New recruits to COBOL can learn it in hours, not days, helping them extend the life of business-critical applications and develop new, high-powered applications using [the language] which many may not even considered possible before," claims Micro Focus CTO Stuart McGill.

"We have carried out this move and made this investment in reaction to consultation with our customers who told us that they want this," Peter Anderton, product solutions director at the firm, told CBR.

The move, for those interested, will be via a new (third) version of the Micro Focus Visual COBOL development environment, which will be able to move apps to the Microsoft Windows Azure platform.

Specifically, it translates the venerable ‘common business programming language’ directly to the JVM, allowing developers to create COBOL applications for the JVM framework and seamlessly integrate with Java. The claim is that by running COBOL on the JVM, development shops can combine the features of the JVM – with all the ‘advantages’ inherent in the older language.

The reality, of course, is that this sort of COBOL isn’t the COBOL you learned in the 1980s. Indeed, it’s more or less another Microsoft tool, not even really a Java one, in this incarnation. The positioning of the Micro Focus marketing with this announcement is that it "is not dissimilar to many modern languages like Java and C#," it runs on .NET as well as the Java Virtual Machine, it integrates closely with things like Eclipse and Visual Studio 2010, and uses modern UI technologies (aka modern Microsoft UI technologies) such as SilverLight.

"This gives those who are new to COBOL the tools and language construct that they are used to, providing them with the ability to program COBOL in a familiar environment." Right: the Microsoft one.

At the same time, COBOL defenders rightly point out the continuing reliance our 21st century world of ours places on systems using this kind of code. COBOL systems are responsible for transporting up to 72,000 shipping containers, help clinicians deal with 60 million patients, process 80% of point-of-sales transactions and connect 500 million mobile phone users.

Micro Focus claims the average American relies on COBOL "at least 13 times during the course of a routine day" as they place phone calls, commute to and from work, and use credit cards. Anyone who went through Y2K knows that’s true – there’s a lot of perfectly OK legacy code out there doing what needs to be done, if it ain’t broke don’t ix it and so on.

But COBOL advocates would also like to claim that COBOL is a live target for apps being built today. This is less certain, I’d say, even though we do note that it claims around 5 billion lines of new COBOL are added to live systems every year or even that there are over 200 times more transactions processed by applications built in it than Google searches each day.

Is there a place for COBOL in the cloud? Sure. Will this release sway anyone to dump Java to write same? Very much an open question.

But as we said, the mere fact is some sort of milestone in the progress of the cloud to full ICT maturity.

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