COBOL-to-Java Translation Tool Eliminates Code Rewriting

The federal student loan service center Campus Partners, an offshoot of Sallie Mae, wanted to revamp its mainframe systems to make loan data accessible to customers via the Web. With millions of lines of complex mainframe code written in the 1980s, and a staff of experienced COBOL programmers who had worked for the company for many years, Campus Partners faced a challenge.

Campus Partners handles accounting, billing and bookkeeping for a huge volume of student loans, and in doing so, follows literally thousands of government rules and regulations. Over the years, it has built reams of complex business logic into its code. “We have a 20-plus year-old legacy mainframe system, written in COBOL and baseline assembler,” says John Elliot, the firm’s director of IT. The huge rule-based system contains 8 million lines of code, mostly in COBOL. To further complicate matters, the company’s longtime mainframe team is in Connecticut; it has a team of Java developers in Ireland.

The mainframe system, Elliot says, is extremely robust and cost effective, with “dozens of tables that we can customize for every customer.” Although customers typically loved the system’s functionality, its ugly, mainframe-like green-screen appearance often gave competitors a selling edge.

Rewriting the code would have been a tremendously expensive and time-consuming undertaking, and screen-scraping proved to be far too complex and resource intensive. Using a tool to convert the code into Java or Windows .NET would have addressed only the COBOL portion, not the 2 million lines of assembler code. And rewriting the assembler part alone, Elliot estimates, would have taken a year and a half and cost a prohibitive amount. In addition, he says, “we needed something now, not in 18 to 24 months.”

In considering a solution, “the biggest encumbrance was our internal technical knowledge,” Elliot says frankly. “We were a mainframe shop; the network people [handled things like] e-mail.” It would have been impossible, he says, to find enough programmers who understood both COBOL and the company’s complex business logic. Instead, the company needed a solution that would allow them to create components without modifying to the original COBOL code on the mainframe.

They selected a product from Micro Focus, a company that provides legacy enterprise development and deployment software. Using a Component Generator facility in Micro Focus Mainframe Express Enterprise Edition, Campus Partners was able to leverage the data in its COBOL applications and extend them to a Web service environment, exposing business transactions written in COBOL as Enterprise Java beans. Using the Micro Focus product “allowed us to process millions of lines of code,” Elliot says, allowing COBOL programmers in Connecticut to generate Java beans that could be used by Java developers in Ireland.

The learning curve was relatively short. With just a day of training, COBOL programmers were able to generate basic Java applications and Web services. Two days after training, Elliot says, “we were mapping Java transactions to the CSC area. The [product’s] simplicity allowed me to [continue to] use my COBOL programmers and my 8 million lines of code.”

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].