Legacy Systems & Service Oriented Architecture

Stephen DeAngelis

December 4, 2006

An interesting article in the Financial Times by Kate Mackenzie discusses the challenges associated with mainframe systems that still rely on legacy languages such as Fortran and Cobol [“Legacy Languages: Programs written in old code pose business problem,” 22 November 2006]. Mackenzie begins her article by noting that although new programs are still being written using legacy languages, the number of programmers skilled in using them is dwindling.

There is good reason for businesses to worry about the languages their IT systems use. Older languages, such as Cobol, are still heavily in use in vital applications, yet the number of programmers able to work in these “legacy languages” is shrinking rapidly. Anyone with only a passing interest in the arcane world of Cobol and other legacy languages could be forgiven for thinking they had been largely replaced in the lead-up to 2000 as part of the “Y2K” panic. But these older languages still account for between 12 and 15 per cent of new development – and it is concentrated in crucial back-end financial systems, explains Jim Duggan, a research vice-president at Gartner. Meanwhile, the number of legacy programmers is down to about a third of the number in the 1990s, as studying old languages has been falling out of favour for many years and older programmers are nearing retirement – with little financial incentive to keep working.

Although one would think that the law of supply and demand would encourage schools to increase the number of graduates trained in legacy languages, that is not happening. Many of the programs still using legacy languages are found in the critical financial sector.

“The demand coming from enrollees is definitely not for legacy,” says Dave Arcemont, VP of global workforce development at EDS, the outsourcer that employs 39,000 developers. “When we assess graduates, legacy is obviously an area in which they’re not adequately skilled.” Mr Arcemont says that between 60 and 70 per cent of EDS’s developers have legacy skills, and demand from clients has led the company not only to focus heavily on internal training, but to work with universities in its home state of Texas to introduce legacy skills to the curriculum. … As many global business transactions still rely on legacy languages, this should be very worrying. Gartner also points to the many new developments being written in Cobol, an assertion backed up by a recent reader survey by Computerworld, the IT trade magazine, which found that 58 per cent of respondents from organisations using Cobol said they were developing new applications in that language.

Mackenzie asks the rhetorical question, “With the growing staffing and expertise challenges, why do people stick with legacy systems?” The two most obvious answers are cost and reliability. Replacing legacy systems could take up to five years and the old system must be maintained even as the new one is being prepared. The other issue is reliability. According to Paul Green, a senior technical consultant at Stratus, procedural languages like Fortran and Cobol, are much more efficient than newer “object-oriented” languages, such as Java and C#.

“The ironic thing is the new software is easily 100 times less efficient,” he says, illustrating the breadth of views about legacy software. Some programmers admire the elegance and robustness of applications based on procedural languages; others despise them for their lack of flexibility.

Mackenzie goes on to write that many companies are opting “for the best of both world’s” by blending legacy systems with newer ones using a service oriented architecture. P&O Ferries, for example, which spent a lot of time and money trying unsuccessfully to transition from legacy systems plans on tackling “the replacement project in smaller, safer chunks; moving it into a service-oriented architecture (SOA) using Cape Clear’s ESB.”

Many businesses opt for the best of both worlds: keeping some of their core legacy applications, but running them within a more modern SOA architecture that makes maintenance and development easier and allows newer services to be added. Migrating decades-old processes from old mainframes to modern platforms can prove difficult, however. This is where vendors of “clone” products – new programs that replicate legacy versions – have a role. Sun Microsystems and Fujitsu provide these types of products, but the main vendor not linked to a server maker is Micro Focus International, a US-based company with roots in Cobol. Micro Focus clones aspects of the mainframe operating environments to reduce dependency on the mainframe itself for tasks such as development and maintenance, and offshoring in small chunks. Stephen Kelly, chief executive, says that there are still “a lot of Cobol developers out there”, but that Micro Focus is also talking to colleges and universities in the US and UK about sponsoring short Cobol conversion courses.

Since a number of large programs continue to use legacy languages, the eulogy for mainframe computers in the 1990s was also premature. IBM has continued to provide mainframes to clients but has bumped against the same aging work force challenges for its mainframe maintenance personnel  as companies using legacy languages have when looking for programmers. Eventually (but maybe later than sooner) companies will transition and service oriented architectures will play a significant role.