So what's the right strategy to transform the business to support the new era of digital commerce?
I put my questions to someone who knows about supporting the evolution of IT systems without risk; Ed Airey, Micro Focus' director of solution marketing for the COBOL business.
Are we still talking COBOL?
The first question must surely be, are we really still talking about COBOL systems here? Is that what we want to transform? Airey was unequivocal,
"Micro Focus has surveyed over 1,200 of our clients and we are staggered by their overwhelming response. 85% are telling us their core COBOL applications are strategic - and nearly two thirds see those systems as needing to support the business for up to a decade to come. Other surveys show a similar response".
Surely organizations are looking to other technologies to meet their digital needs; surely COBOL isn't the right choice?
"The language is not important, nor is the platform. What's vital to the organization is the ongoing health of the applications! The mechanics of how they were constructed are no longer the critical factor, what is important is the value they bring to the business today, and what they need to do in the future. In most cases, that value needs to be built on top of, in addition to, what's already there".
So, if you pardon the pun, the application means business, right?
"Absolutely! The applications are the identity of that business. It's their brand, their market image, the way in which their customers and partners engage with them. So much of the business policy and its future potential are wrapped up in their way of working - the application. Thousands of Micro Focus clients globally are continuing to press ahead with their investment in trusted applications based on COBOL."
A lot of usage of COBOL is fairly understandable - major data processing and transaction-based systems, calculations and the like - billing and payroll. I asked Airey if these were COBOL's sweet spot.
"We are always impressed by our customers' innovative ambition! COBOL is great at the numbers and data side, sure, but the practicality and flexibility of the technology means many vertical sectors have adopted it. COBOL sits at the heart of many manufacturing, retail, automotive, logistics and other sectors, as well as the more traditional financial services, banking, insurance and government. You'd be amazed where it is used - COBOL helps ship medical supplies, count livestock, order a new coat, drive away a new car, even report on batting averages".
But there's a lot of technology available today - so I queried whether COBOL is really enough on its own?
"COBOL applications inevitably interface with a variety of other technology standards to provide a best-in-class application experience. So whether our customers are building new interfaces, whether they are adopting Cloud or other new platforms, or even refining their delivery processes using DevOps, our COBOL solution can sit at the heart of that IT transformation".
It sounds exciting, but not straightforward, I mused. How do customers figure it out?
"Technology is only ever one part of the answer, and Micro Focus is all about supporting customer innovation. So we're also providing a range of services and assets to help our customers deliver on their digital strategy. For example, our new Visual COBOL book is designed for all modern application developers and is a free digital asset available to all our clients - we've had nearly ten thousand enquiries already".
But aren't people tempted to throw it away and start from scratch?
"It happens, but statistically there are significant dangers", Airey said "Industry reports talk about a staggering failure rate of application rewrite projects, and package replacements are not much better. Only through modernizing the most critical core COBOL applications, effectively leveraging what's already working, can you aim to keep those risks and costs down," he added.
A Platform for the Future
My final question to Ed was what can customers expect to see in the future?
"Our flagship product for modern COBOL development has just enjoyed its 7th consecutive year of success, and we are looking forward to another great year. Our development teams are already working on the next incarnations as part of our regular release cycle, and once again we are looking forward to showcasing the technology at one of our regular events. You can check out our latest launch video here. Micro Focus has been a technical partner to thousands of clients for four decades, and we have continued to invest in the COBOL technology to enable our customers to continue to leverage valuable IT assets. Here today, and here tomorrow."
Learn more about the COBOL world by registering for the market research webinar here. For more information, see https://www.microfocus.com/solutions/cobol-development/