COBOL coders needed again as mainframe projects increase

While the popularity of client servers and distributed computing seemed to mark the end of the “big iron” age, recent developments indicate mainframes may be around for many more years.

Unfortunately the talent needed to run them is in short supply, technology experts say,

Mainframe installation projects are growing by about five per cent a year, according to a recent report from Deloitte Canada in Toronto.

But the pool of programmers familiar with languages such as COBOL is falling, according to the consulting firm’s report titled Technology, Media & Telecommunications (TMT) Predictions.

The study identifies and comments on global TMT trends that may have a significant impact on businesses in 2008.

According to the report, the key mainframe-related skill is the ability to work with COBOL, a computing language developed in the 1950s.

One of the biggest challenges confronting companies in 2008 will be how to manage talent when legacy becomes the future, said Duncan Stewart, co-author of the report and head of Deloitte Canada Research.

Large enterprises’ continued reliance on mainframes is based on the machines’ lower energy consumption, resilience and the high cost of replacement.

The report said mainframes’ use of power is lower than that of any other type of server.

On the other hand server power consumption, per $1,000 of acquisition cost, rose from eight watts to 109 watts between 2000 and 2006. It is expected to rise to around 417 watts by 2009.

Mainframes also have a track record of being robust and long lasting.

The average mainframe breaks down every 38 years or 453 months, compared with just 18 months for competing products.

A top executive of a Toronto-based IT staffing firm said large financial firms are especially hesitant to replace legacy platforms.

Terry Powers, head of Sapphire Technologies recalled a recent conversation with a CIO of a Canadian financial company who was worried his COBOL programmers would be retiring in three to five years.

The CIO wanted to find out where he could find suitable replacements.

“When I asked him what’s stopping him from upgrading to more current technology, his answer was: ‘$400 million’,” said Powers.

Over the years the number of programmers capable of maintaining mainframes has dwindled, said Powers. “There is still a sizeable population but the talent pool is not being replaced because schools are hardly teaching COBOL anymore.”

He said a few exceptions are technology programs such as those run by the Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto where core mainframe skills are being taught again.

For most companies it is vital that mainframe talent comes from local sources, Powers said. “Mainframe operation and maintenance is integral to everyday operations and institutions like banks can’t afford to hire out the work offshore.

The Ryerson program is focused on elder students who are in mid-career, according to Chris Drummond, vice-president of marketing for Sapphire.

He said these are individuals who are more likely to be using the skills to actually run mainframes in their places of work.

Powers said it is difficult to judge how much longer mainframes will remain in the enterprise but it is likely that the big iron will be around for another five to 10 years.

The production capacity of the largest mainframe maker, IBM, has grown steadily from under 3.5 million of installed instruction processing power per second in 200 to 11.1 million in early 2007, the Deloitte report said.

There are several ways to deal with the talent scarcity.

One would be to move applications away from legacy hardware. This, however, is not always feasible.

Migration would be time consuming and expensive and would require a team of programmers knowledgeable in COBOL as well as current programming languages, said Stewart.

The full business advantage of such a migration will only be realized in the mid-term, making the business case for such a move challenging.

A second approach would be to train staff.

This, Powers said, is what is happening in the case of COBOL programmers. Some companies are sending younger staff members for retraining in the older language or pairing them with more experienced personnel.

IBM is also in carrying out a five-year project to train more than 20,000 people in mainframe administration.

A third approach, Stewart said, would be to make the underlying technology easier to use.

IBM is investing $10 million dollars for the next five years in efforts geared towards simplifying mainframe management. Part of the program includes the recent upgrade of z/OS, Big Blue’s operating system for mainframes.

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