Legacy Systems Back in the Limelight
- By Michael W. Bucken
- January 1, 2001
Corporations look to reuse
and extend legacy systems in an effort to expand their business model to the
Internet; the death of COBOL is (still) greatly exaggerated.
Throughout the 1990s, large
IT organizations learned — often the hard way — that building new corporate
information systems from scratch was more likely to cause problems than solve
them. Legacy commercial systems, most written in COBOL for IBM mainframe systems
or proprietary minicomputer systems, still worked well and employees knew how
to use them. A complete overhaul of these applications could cost organizations
millions of dollars in terms of development and training costs, while causing
disruption among users and customers.
A decade ago, experts proclaimed
that the mainframe was dead and that new applications had to be written in new
languages — read C and later C++, Visual Basic, PowerBuilder, Gupta, Delphi
and the like — for the emerging client/server model. Analysts proclaimed that
the client/server model represented the wave of the future, and that the server
was not a mainframe running applications written in COBOL or Pascal. At the
same time, IBM's mainframe business declined steadily and minicomputer makers
like Digital Equipment Corp., Wang Laboratories Inc. and Prime Computer Inc.
were being acquired and their proprietary technologies left to fade away. Unix
servers and Windows clients were said to be the future for corporate IT organizations.
Yet many organizations continued
to run, and still do to this day, on applications written for mainframes. In
many cases, the smarter companies decided to wait and see how the client/server
revolution would fall into place. By the end of the 1990s, the client/server
bubble had pretty much burst as organizations concentrated instead on resolving
Y2K issues and extending their businesses to the rapidly emerging World Wide
Web. A key lesson learned from the so-called Y2K crisis was that efforts to
replace legacy applications with new, internally built ones were mostly futile
due to time and financial restraints. Thus, legacy applications retained their
mission-critical status at many large corporations. The shift was a boon to
IBM, whose mainframe business rebounded through the end of the 1990s.
The need to continue utilizing
legacy applications caused a late 1990s change in strategy for Cary, N.C.-based
Relativity Technologies Inc., said founder and Chief Executive Vivek Wadhwa.
The company was founded about two years ago to help organizations rewrite legacy
systems in Java, but Relativity executives quickly learned that corporate IT
managers "don't want to transform [legacy] systems into Java," said Wadhwa.
Java is best for building new applications that can be linked to or integrated
with legacy applications.
So Relativity quickly shifted
gears and concentrated its efforts on developing tools to "componentize" legacy
applications to enable these components to be integrated with Web-based systems.
"You can't rewrite systems that have been built over two or three decades,"
Wadhwa said. "The dark secret is that people don't know how their systems work.
The opportunity is to componentize systems and integrate them with the new systems."
Today, many corporate IT
organizations are emerging from completed Y2K projects with application backlogs
and orders from the corner office to quickly build systems that can take advantage
of the Internet's potential to significantly boost marketing/sales efforts.
And many have learned through experience that utilizing and extending legacy
applications can save the company significant development and training costs.
In many cases, building new, mission-critical applications to replace existing
ones is seen as financial suicide. In other cases, there is no choice — new
systems must be built or bought because legacy applications may incorporate
so many patches or be so old that they cannot be extended to support the requirements
of today's organizations.
"This company has 20 years
invested in COBOL systems," said Clyde Todd, section chief in the Internet division
of the Army Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), a non-profit retailer contracted
to operate department stores on U.S. Army and Air Force bases in the United
States and abroad. "We changed the front end. We have to keep up with our competitors
off the military bases, the Wal-Marts and K-Marts [discount department store
chains]. We kept the business logic on the mainframe when that was best. Our
systems have grown over the past 20 years, but the core remains the same, and
they will continue to [stay the same]."
The AAFES experience is
not unique, observers say. According to data compiled by Giga Information Group,
a Cambridge, Mass.-based market researcher, 70% or more of the world's active
business applications are written in COBOL; 16,000 large enterprises worldwide
still use COBOL in some way; and more than 2 million programmers are trained
in COBOL development. Giga consultants also note that corporations that just
spent millions to renovate COBOL systems to meet year 2000 requirements cannot
justify starting a costly application replacement project, at least for the
next two or three years. Thus, COBOL systems can be expected to run a slew of
corporations for years to come.
The AAFES and other organizations
are taking advantage of some of the advances to COBOL that have emerged over
the past few years with little fanfare in an era of over-hyped, new Internet
technologies and tools. These extensions to COBOL support component-based development,
offer multiplatform support, add object-oriented technologies and can be used
to Web-enable deep-rooted COBOL applications.
Liz Barnett, an analyst
at Giga, noted that a variety of technologies can be used to extend legacy applications
into the new world — including Web-to-host access tools, multiple middleware
technologies, some of the application server types and legacy mining tools.
But she warns IT managers to be wary of false promises. Not all tools can extend
or upgrade existing applications.
"Buyers have to make sure
they are buying the right solution," Barnett said. "You don't want a solution
that's looking for a problem." She said that while some former year 2000 specialists
have successfully produced capable solutions for extending COBOL applications,
the technologies of others cannot yet be used to adequately extend legacy systems.
And in some cases, she said, new development is best.
Analysts also warn that
renewing and extending legacy applications is very complex. The task requires
skills that are not always readily available internally or externally; in addition,
companies must now battle each other to hire from a dwindling supply of software
developers with expertise in these new technologies. Analysts at Giga Group
list several skills that IT personnel need in order to implement renewal projects,
including expertise in legacy systems, component and Internet development models,
as well as expertise in integrating legacy and new applications, and knowledge
of the packaged applications used at a site. Many IT groups are turning to outside
consultants for help, but with varying degrees of success.
For example, some consultants
do not include corporate developers in projects, which leaves a client with
the same lack of expertise that existed when the project began. Development
managers should view a consulting job as an opportunity to train internal developers
in new technologies. More importantly, perhaps, they should ensure that internal
engineers share their legacy systems expertise with consultants. Analysts note
that any project that includes both legacy and new technologies requires personnel
that can offer expertise in both systems.
Theory vs. reality
Organizations are "looking
at how to mine the knowledge, the information that exists in legacy applications
today," said Kevin Ashworth, director of the e-solutions practice at Boston-based
consulting firm Keane Inc., which has converted at least part of its successful
Y2K consulting business to a legacy renewal operation.
"Many companies have millions
of dollars invested in systems that were built in-house. A lot of them were
replaced with [packaged] CRM and ERP systems because of year 2000 issues, but
there are still plenty of legacy applications that were not touched," he said.
Ashworth said Keane consultants
are often called in to help IT developers "understand what a [legacy] application
does. Many of these things are largely undocumented. With the advent of the
Web, and efforts to connect them to the external world, the challenge is to
understand them. One of the things we're asked by the bigger companies is 'How
do we leverage what we have without having to go inside and document them by
Though the question of how
to best utilize legacy systems may be obvious, the potential answers likely
require significant engineering expertise and monies. And experts agree that
abiding by that theory is no guarantee that a specific legacy application will
be renovated successfully. But for the most part, there is less risk in revamping
a legacy application than in writing a new one.
If the search for new project
skills to extend legacy systems leads to consultants, Giga recommends that any
decision be based on thorough evaluation. Options can include traditional mainframe
and client/server consultants; former year 2000 vendors; large systems integrators
like IBM, Andersen Consulting and Electronic Data Systems; and the newer e-business
service providers. Each offers different skills that may only work with specific
Though IBM now pushes Java
rather than COBOL as the development language for middle-tier apps, veteran
COBOL players Merant plc, Rockville, Md.; Acucorp, San Diego; and Fujitsu Software
Corp. (a unit of Tokyo-based Fujitsu Ltd.), San Jose, Calif.; continue to upgrade
mainstay COBOL tools with object-oriented and Web development capabilities.
Keane's Ashworth also noted
that organizations are utilizing tools from Jacada Ltd., Atlanta, and Netron
Inc., Toronto, to add graphical interfaces to extended mainframe applications.
Such tools "take screen scraping to another level," he noted.
IBM and Computer Associates
International Inc., Islandia, N.Y., continue to sell and update the VisualAge
for COBOL and Realia Workbench COBOL tools, respectively; but both are for building
and maintaining mainframe-only applications, say experts.
The Army Air Force Exchange
Service uses Merant's NetExpress tool for its "first step in moving [mainframe
COBOL applications] to the Web," said Todd of the retailers' fast-action support
team. Service developers built a full e-commerce site where "the true heart
of the system still resides on the mainframe," he said. Todd said the development
project did not require outside consultants because the organization could utilize
its longtime COBOL expertise.
AAFES initiated its online
business about four years ago. It has grown at more than 200% a year, bringing
in about $25 million in revenue during 1999, said Todd.
Gerry Cullen, director of
special projects at Detroit Diesel-Allison British Columbia, Vancouver, a manufacturer
and distributor of diesel engines, said his firm first looked to abandon COBOL
when IT managers looked to upgrade its Wang VS10000-based COBOL applications
in the early 1990s. "First, we looked at a number of packages, but none of them
fit the bill, especially when you throw in the cross-border [United States and
Canada] requirements and some specialized things we have to do," he said. "So
we shelved the project for a couple of years" before deciding to extend the
legacy COBOL applications from the Wang hardware to a Unix-based system from
the Data General unit of EMC Corp., Hopkinton, Mass., using Acucorp's Acucobol
toolset, explained Cullen.
Cullen said the timing allowed
Detroit Diesel developers to complete Y2K work as part of the process. "We had
the conversion up and running in December 1998, and the Y2K conversion was done
by June 1999," he said. He estimates that the decision to continue using legacy
applications saved the firm approximately $500,000 in training costs for the
120 users of the system at the firm, which employs 190 and had sales of about
$50 million last year.
Remaining a mainstay
Merant predecessor Micro
Focus (Merant was formed by the merger of COBOL tool supplier Micro Focus and
Intersolv in 1998) shifted strategies several years ago, from rehosting COBOL
applications on non-mainframe platforms to offering tools for building distributed
COBOL appli-cations and integrating them in non-COBOL environments.
"We've taken the old Micro
Focus tools and added new technologies so developers can approach a problem
the way they want to," said Joe Nicholson, vice president of marketing in Merant's
Micro Focus unit. "[Organizations] want to push applications out to the Web,
but not touch the code. When no code is touched, you reduce the risk of the
code not working."
Acucorp's Acucobol tool
family is described by Giga Information Group as a COBOL-like 4GL that can provide
developers with most of the benefits of a client/server 4GL. "We're moving people
off the mainframe to open systems — open COBOL systems," said Acucorp co-founder,
President and Chief Executive Pamela Coker. "The main benefits we offer are
very low risk and modernization at the same time." The Fujitsu toolset, also
built to extend COBOL systems to new, more modern platforms, is still sold mostly
in the Far East. The tool is said to hold a 40% share of the Japanese market,
though the U.S unit is at times aggressive in its pursuit of business in North
Legacy systems and COBOL
are mostly unknown by today's new breed of programmer, who concentrates on Java
and Internet development. Yet these systems remain a mainstay in many organizations;
experts advise the corporate world not to overlook the value of legacy code.