The Bedrock of Digital Transformation –

By Derek Britton on

Trends come and go. I’m old enough to have been persuaded, twice, about the good sense of flared jeans. I had a space hopper. I had a Betamax video player. Fads and cool ideas are a constant white noise, vying for our attention. Some will stick, some won’t. And that’s true in technology. No-one admits to owning a C5, but plenty of us built PowerBuilder and Delphi apps. A few of us tinkered with Smalltalk.

But genuinely smart, enduring ideas find a way of sticking, of evolving, and adapting. No-one these days thinks of a phone as a wired device stuck to a wall which you could only use if you asked someone to connect you. And no longer do you have to employ anyone to run in front of you with a flag as you drive your motor car. Like cars and phones, good ideas endure and in the world of computers and IT, the COBOL language is no exception.

Very few organizations of any size are not being impacted by today’s digital era and the seismic changes being seen in the market place. Entire industries have been disrupted beyond all predictions in the last decade or so. Indeed 88% of the Fortune 500 have dropped off that list in the last 50 years, as those who fail to keep up with the pace of change are being replaced by those who can adapt.

But adapting isn’t easy. Making fast progress toward new digital objectives is often hampered by practical barriers that are individually difficult to solve, particularly in the case of the existing technology landscape already in place. Things such as vendor lock in, complex business processes, interdependent apps and data, inefficient delivery processes, technical constraints and skills issues.

Additionally, the technology landscape is forever changing, but only growing in complexity. Today, large global enterprise businesses typically run a hybrid environment, which is a consequence of adopting multiple waves of technological advancements over time. Each individual advancement offered opportunity and progress, but eventually results in a highly complex and inefficient technology environment. Most organizations are pursuing digital transformation programs with a view to reduce complexity, create better flexibility and reduce total cost of ownership.

There has been tremendous value created in business applications and data and there is a lot to be gained in digital transformation by leveraging that value as much as possible, in transforming it with the minimum cost and risk. Much of this value is encapsulated in systems built some time back, and which have evolved with the business. Oftentimes, using COBOL technology. COBOL was invented way back when, but has adapted to support ongoing business technology demands and rigors.

Having an appreciation for where your organization is today, along with an awareness of what needs to be achieved in regard to the required updates, the process used and the infrastructure considered, can assist with plotting the pragmatic steps to develop a plan that delivers transformational value. With some of the most critical systems being written in COBOL, these core systems continue to power a variety of fundamental processes in modern business.

The risks of ripping and replacing systems are measured as an average IT project failure rate of 71%, which amounts to a $1.7tr cost in a single year. These are dreadful numbers and no organization wants to waste that sort of time and money and reputation. There is now a growing realization, from many years of experience in those more radical transformation projects, that their success rate is relatively low, planned costs and timescales typically grow exponentially, and the risks to successfully continue business during such a transformation are unacceptably high.

Enter stage left a more pragmatic approach: modernization. This concept prioritizes on protecting the value of what companies already have, exploiting advancements in technology to deploy and integrate applications in new ways and to surface and integrate data in new ways, with the minimum change to what already exists. Creating portability and operational independence for applications and data is becoming recognized as the fastest and most future proofed path to building a platform for digital transformation. Market influencers such as Gartner and IDC have commented on it, and most of the global systems integrators are industrializing their modernization practices to support companies successfully transform. So what is the underlying technology acting as the catalyst for this modernization and transformation?

COBOL enters its seventh decade of helping run great chunks of the world’s largest IT systems entirely thanks to its staying power; its adaptability.

COBOL’s endurance owes a lot to its original design that make it readable and portable, meaning it can be picked up by new staff quickly, and deploy wherever it is needed. What kept it in such demand owes more to the ongoing evolution of the language itself, and the tooling surrounding it. COBOL works alongside, integrates with and supports containers, cloud, JVM, .NET, JSON/REST, micro services, modern IDEs and other technology typically associated with more contemporary names. COBOL technology plugs directly into a DevOps toolchain that is adopting continuous delivery practices for some of the economies’ most important IT systems.

COBOL is, in fact, a 2019 technology; just with a 60-year heritage.

Next time you pick up your mobile to make a call, or sit in your car to drive to work, ask yourself how you feel about how old that idea is.


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