Is IBM's Latest Watsonx Release the GenAI Answer to Mainframe Application Modernization?

IBM has unveils the first generative-AI-based solution for faster COBOL-to-Java translation.

IBM has unveiled what appears to be the first generative-AI-based solution for COBOL-to-Java translation. The newly announced Watsonx Code Assistant for Z ┬áis designed to speed up the translation of COBOL to Java on IBM Z, the company's line of z/Architecture mainframes.

IBM is set to preview the solution during TechXchange, the company's technical learning event in Las Vegas, which runs from Sept 11-13. It will debut during a webinar on Sept. 21 at 11 am ET, which attendees can register for here. The company plans to make the product generally available in Q4 2023.

The venerable COBOL data processing language has been a mainstay of government, business, and banking operations for nearly 60 years. Industry analysts typically count the lines of COBOL code undergirding these organizations in the billions.

Watsonx Code Assistant for Z will make life easier for the developers who must selectively and incrementally transform COBOL business services into well-architected, high-quality Java code, the company says.

"Generative AI can help developers to more quickly assess, update, validate and test the right code," the company said in a statement, "allowing them to more efficiently modernize large applications and focus on higher impact tasks."

Watsonx Code Assistant for Z joins a growing lineup of Watsonx Code Assistant products; Watsonx Code Assistant for Red Hat Ansible Lightspeed, is scheduled for release later this year.

All of these solutions will be powered by IBM's Code Model, which the company has described as "next generation enterprise studio for AI builders to train, validate, tune and deploy AI models." It will have knowledge of 115 coding languages, the company said, which it learned from 1.5 trillion tokens. 

"At 20 billion parameters, it is on target to become one of the largest generative AI foundation models for code automation," the company said. "The Watsonx Code Assistant product portfolio will extend over time to address other programming languages, to improve time to value for modernization and address growing skills challenges for developers."

IBM is designing these capabilities to provide tooling "for each step of the modernization journey," the company said.

The newest member of the Watsonx Code Assistant family is expected to include IBM's Application Discovery and Delivery Intelligence (ADDI) inventory and analysis tool. Once ADDI is in place, the company plans to include features for refactoring business services in COBOL, transforming COBOL code to Java code with an optimized design, and validating the resulting outcome, including using automated testing capabilities.

"By bringing generative AI capabilities through Watsonx to new use cases, we plan to drive real progress for our clients," said Kareem Yusuf, PhD, Senior Vice President in the Product Management and Growth group at IBM Software. "IBM is engineering Watsonx Code Assistant for Z to take a targeted and optimized approach. It's built to rapidly and accurately convert code optimized for IBM Z, accelerate time to market and broaden the skills pool. This can help enhance applications and add new capabilities while preserving the performance, resiliency, and security inherent in IBM Z."

In its announcement, IBM offers a quote from the 2023 Gartner┬« report (for Gartner subscribers only): " 2028, the combination of humans and AI assistants working in tandem could reduce the time to complete coding tasks by 30%." The report further states that "the use of AI code-generation tools is not replacing the quality assurance (QA) processes and security controls that are needed by developers for robust and secure product development, as well as for mitigation of inherited risks from using generative methods for code."

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].