Maximising the investment made in Cobol applications can only aid organisations in an environment where skills are decreasing both in number and quality  and business demands on IT continue to increase.

James Lemmon, founder of JWL Software and the Johannesburg Area Cobol Users Group, says this message came out loud and clear at this month's user-group meeting, which was themed "21st Century Cobol". The Cobol User Group (JACUG), supported  by MigrationWare and Micro Focus, presented the seminar which was addressed by speakers from Micro Focus UK, Nedbank and Syspro.
Lemmon says with over two million people involved with Cobol around the world and the total investment in Cobol applications, staff and hardware estimated at over $5-trillion, Cobol is here to stay.
"Much of IT's focus in large organisations has therefore shifted to how to modernise architecture founded on Cobol. Many companies are using tools like Micro Focus Mainframe Express to take their Cobol development off the mainframe, while other companies are migrating Cobol applications off the mainframe onto other platforms, emulating the mainframe environment while retaining their Cobol programs," he says.
Peter Anderton, Micro Focus UK product solutions director: application development, says a key need in the world of Cobol today is skills.
"While many of the Universities in the US and UK are including Cobol in their course material, 50% of people in the Cobol community have over 25 years of experience. The key challenge for companies using Cobol is going to be finding people with experience in using Cobol in a corporate environment," he says.
Micro Focus has a programme that supports Universities and training institutions through the provision of free software, courseware and support for Cobol training purposes.
While some have written the language off, Anderton says it's important to remember that Cobol is pervasive across business, comprising 80% of the currently active computer code globally, with 75% of all business data around the world being processed in Cobol applications. Furthermore, 25 % of Cobol applications around the world are being extended and applications written in Cobol account for five percent of all new applications being written.
"Quoting from Gartner's report on "assessing the age of software languages and tools", the IT Research gurus have given Cobol at least another 10 years, describing it as a mature language, while many younger languages have been described as ageing or elderly and on their way out. Gartner has therefore recommended to companies who use Cobol; that they actively start talking to academic and training institutions to assist them in producing the skills that are needed in business, particularly around Cobol," he says.
Russell Hollick, Syspro research director, presented on Syspro's ERP software that runs on Micro Focus Cobol, including its history as well as demonstrating how the application runs and what it is capable of. Syspro's software, created and maintained in South Africa, is running in 14 000 companies worldwide.
"Cobol has been key to Syspro's success allowing the company to build on Cobol as a stable language when many languages have come and gone. The strengths of Cobol have also enabled us to deliver timely functionality which has propelled our clients towards their business goals," he says.
Hollick concluded by saying that companies need to "get past the word 'Legacy'; retain existing investment without being 'held back'; provide modern solutions by architecting systems or products correctly and to integrate Cobol and other .Net applications seamlessly."
He also reiterated that companies must train and retain Cobol developers.
John Bourhill, Nedbank GSS technical specialist, says in the current tough economic environment, developers are expected to do more with less.
Bourhill , a self-proclaimed "mainframe bigot" said that "much of the drive around Cobol of late has been to move into the modern era by allowing developers to get off the mainframe and develop on a desktop. This has not only given them the freedom to work when and where they want to in a simulated environment, but has also improved productivity levels by developing in a more interactive and graphically rich environment."
This has been necessitated by the expectation placed on IT by business to do more with less. IT's capacity to keep pace with existing requirements is decreasing because of the dearth of skills in the ICT market, which is exacerbated further by the brain drain, the decline in the educational standards, HIV etc.
But Bourhill emphasised that that South Africa has one of the most developed banking environments in the world.
"In South Africa, the banks are so connected that the transfer of funds from one bank to another, to people at different branches in different provinces is accepted as a given. However, it is something that is not as pervasively available even in countries like the US," he says.
Cobol is still the first choice of financial institutions because mission critical high throughput systems require proven technology, predictability, reliability, scalability, high performance and ease of integration to function optimally.
Bourhill says banks need to invest in their developers by giving them the tools they need to deliver more with less and provide training and mentorship to grow their developers.
"We are fighting to retain our position in the 'premier league of nations' and if we are demoted to the second league the consequences are dire, including loss of revenue, skills, sponsorships, 'privileges' of being in the first division and so on.
"This is where software, like that developed by Micro Focus, can play a key role in enabling developers to produce more with less and we need to capitalise on such opportunities," he says.
Lemmon, says there is a desperate need in South Africa for a greater focus on Cobol.
"While the banks are training over 150 Cobol developers a year, there are no Cobol training institutions currently preparing programmers to quickly be able to meet the changing business demands from organisations on their internal development environments.
"The seminar was a great success and we'll be looking to hold regular seminars and user group meetings to stimulate interest and involvement in Cobol," he says.