What is COBOL and why do organizations migrate? 

COBOL, an acronym for Common Business-Oriented Language, was developed in the late 1950s as a programming language for business data processing. It prioritizes readability and can manage massive data processing operations, making it useful for financial and administrative systems.

Over the years, COBOL has evolved through several standards to include features supporting structured and object-oriented programming. Despite its age, it remains critical in running core business operations for many organizations. The language is known for its reliability in handling extensive transactional data tasks.

Despite its reliability and extensive use, many organizations are migrating away from COBOL. A key reason is the language’s incompatibility with modern software development practices and technologies. COBOL’s architecture, built for mainframe systems, does not align well with contemporary paradigms like cloud computing, microservices, and DevOps, making integration with newer systems challenging.

This is part of a series of articles about legacy code.

Why do organizations still use COBOL? 

Organizations across various sectors continue to rely on COBOL due to its proven stability and efficiency in processing large amounts of data. Financial institutions, government agencies, healthcare providers, insurance companies, and technology firms find COBOL useful for daily operations. 

For example, it underpins the majority of global banking transactions and is used for managing social security records and healthcare data. This reliance on COBOL is attributed to its ability to handle complex business logic and transactions, but there is also an element of inertia. Despite the emergence of modern programming languages, transitioning away from COBOL presents significant challenges for many organizations. 

The cost implications, potential for operational disruptions during migration, and scarcity of skilled professionals proficient in both COBOL and contemporary technologies are considerable deterrents. Consequently, many choose to upgrade their existing COBOL infrastructure rather than replacing it entirely, ensuring continuity of their critical systems.

Reasons to migrate COBOL systems

Despite its continued widespread use, there are several reasons for organizations to consider migrating their systems away from COBOL.

Obsolescence and security risks 

As technology advances, maintaining compatibility becomes increasingly challenging, with vendors phasing out support for older platforms. This can expose organizations to heightened security risks, as outdated systems may not be patched or updated to defend against modern cyber threats. 

Migrating to contemporary platforms ensures ongoing vendor support and access to security updates, better protecting critical data against vulnerabilities. Reliance on obsolete technology also limits an organization’s ability to respond to market changes or integrate with newer technologies, posing a competitive disadvantage.

Incompatibility with contemporary technologies 

COBOL’s architecture, rooted in the era of mainframe computing, struggles to align with the paradigms of modern software development, such as cloud computing, microservices, and DevOps practices. This misalignment hampers the integration of COBOL-based systems with newer technologies, creating silos that impede operational efficiency and innovation. 

As organizations look to become more agile and data-driven, legacy COBOL systems make it harder to leverage data analytics and artificial intelligence. Modern IT infrastructures can support real-time data processing, scalability, and global accessibility. 

Skills shortage and cost burden 

There is a shortage of skilled COBOL programmers, as experts familiar with this legacy language retire and new entrants into the workforce shift their focus towards more modern programming languages. This shortage exacerbates the challenge of maintaining and updating existing COBOL systems, leading to increased operational costs. 

Organizations must either invest heavily in training new personnel on an outdated technology or pay premium salaries to the diminishing number of COBOL specialists. By transitioning to more contemporary and widely-used programming languages, organizations can tap into a larger pool of developers, reducing recruitment challenges and associated costs.

Related content: Read our guide to COBOL modernization

Key steps and best practices for COBOL migration

Here are some of the steps that organizations can take to ensure a successful migration from COBOL.

1. Pre-Migration preparation 

Before initiating a migration from COBOL to modern platforms, a comprehensive system assessment and inventory is essential. This step involves analyzing the existing COBOL codebase to understand its architecture, functionality, and interdependencies. Document the data structures, files, and external interfaces employed by the COBOL applications. 

Focus on identifying critical business processes supported by COBOL applications. Prioritize which systems are vital for day-to-day operations and need immediate attention during migration. This requires collaboration with stakeholders across various departments to assess the impact of migrating each application. 

Set clear migration goals and success criteria—be it cost reduction, performance enhancement, or improved scalability—and how success will be measured. Establishing these objectives upfront guides decision-making throughout the migration process and helps in evaluating its effectiveness upon completion.

2. Choosing the right modern software solution 

Evaluate various programming languages and platforms, considering factors like scalability, performance, and compatibility with existing systems. The choice should align with strategic business objectives and leverage the development team’s strengths. Languages such as Java, C#, and Python offers extensive libraries and frameworks that can reduce development time.

Cloud-based solutions should also be considered for their ability to provide scalable, flexible infrastructure. Migrating to the cloud can reduce hardware costs, improve disaster recovery capabilities, and enable remote access to applications. However, it’s important to assess data security, compliance requirements, and potential integration challenges in the cloud.

3. Building a migration team 

The migration team should consist of professionals with expertise in both COBOL and modern technologies. This includes seasoned COBOL programmers familiar with the legacy systems and developers proficient in contemporary programming languages and frameworks. The blend of old and new expertise enables knowledge transfer and supports a smooth transition process. 

Define clear roles and responsibilities within this diverse team to maintain focus and ensure accountability throughout the migration project. Assignments might include system analysis, code conversion, data migration, testing, integration tasks, or project management roles. Providing opportunities for cross-training can enhance team capabilities, enabling members to tackle different aspects of the migration.

4. Creating a migration plan 

This plan should outline a phased approach, breaking the migration into manageable stages such as system analysis, code translation, data migration, testing, and integration. By segmenting the process, teams can focus on specific tasks. Early identification of potential bottlenecks or challenges allows for proactive resolution and maintains momentum.

Establish clear timelines and milestones for each phase of the migration. Set realistic deadlines and consider unforeseen complexities and resource availability to reduce the risk of delays. Regularly reviewing progress against these milestones enables timely adjustments to the plan, ensuring that objectives are met within the intended timeframe.

5. Data migration and testing 

Data migration requires a thorough understanding of existing data structures within COBOL applications and mapping these to the new system’s requirements. Identify how data will be translated to ensure compatibility post-migration. Cleanse and validate the data to ensure quality throughout the migration process. This might include removing duplicates, correcting errors, and standardizing formats. 

Test the migrated data and the functionality of new applications, using strategies such as unit testing, system testing, integration testing, and user acceptance testing (UAT). Engaging end-users in UAT helps confirm that the migration meets business needs and that users are comfortable with the new system. 

6. Code migration and refactoring 

Developers must focus on converting COBOL’s procedural paradigms to the object-oriented or functional paradigms of modern languages, which often involves rethinking algorithms and data structures to align with contemporary best practices.

During migration, handling dependencies within the COBOL codebase is critical due to its often monolithic structure. This may involve modularizing the code, abstracting business logic, and leveraging modern libraries or frameworks that provide equivalent functionality. Refactoring helps optimize the migrated code for performance, readability, and adherence to modern coding standards. 

7. Integrating with existing systems 

Implement careful planning to ensure compatibility and interoperability between the new applications and the current IT infrastructure. Identify integration points and understand the communication protocols, data formats, and services used by existing systems. Compatibility testing helps verify that the modernized applications can interact with other components.

Develop APIs to support secure and efficient data exchange between the newly migrated applications and other systems within the organization. APIs serve as bridges, allowing different software to communicate regardless of their underlying technologies. Conduct comprehensive integration testing to ensure that system components work well together covering various scenarios to validate data flow and system performance under different loads. 

8. Training and skill development 

Establish training programs tailored to the needs of the workforce, ensuring that employees are well-versed in the new technology stack. These programs should cover the fundamentals of the modern programming languages and platforms adopted during the migration, as well as best practices in software development within these new environments. 

Providing hands-on experience through projects or simulations can help solidify this knowledge. Upskilling existing COBOL developers is also important, given their deep understanding of the legacy systems. Focus on equipping these individuals with skills in modern programming languages, tools, and methodologies. This ensures that valuable institutional memory is retained within the organization.

9. Post-migration support and maintenance 

After completing a COBOL migration, ensure the modernized system operates efficiently. Implement monitoring tools to observe system performance and detect issues. Track metrics such as response times, error rates, and resource utilization, facilitating proactive management of the system’s health. Implement regular debugging to identify and fix software bugs

Establish a support framework to address user queries and resolve issues. This includes setting up help desks or ticketing systems where users can report problems and receive assistance. Maintain an updated knowledge base to help users troubleshoot common issues independently, reducing the workload on support teams. 

Create a sustainable maintenance plan with scheduled updates, security patches, and periodic reviews of the system to ensure it aligns with evolving business requirements. 

Documenting legacy code with Swimm

Legacy code represents a significant challenge as well as an opportunity for software organizations. Managing legacy code entails more than just dealing with untidy or outdated code; it involves transforming it into a reliable and efficient foundation that supports future development initiatives. Handling legacy code effectively can lead to considerable long-term savings and heightened productivity, marking it as a strategic priority for any R&D organization. 

Swimm is a devtool that will help you and your team document legacy code in an easy, manageable, and effective way. Utilize AI to create docs about legacy code and then discover those docs directly in your IDE. Those docs then stay up to date with ongoing code changes, boosting your team’s productivity and enhancing the quality of your codebase.