The Government’s COBOL Conundrum

The decades-old programming language has proved reliable for agencies. But like all investments, it too has a cost.

Federal agencies want savvy 20- and 30-somethings who know how to reap the benefits of Big Data analytics, social media and the growing list of “as-a-service” offerings.

But as much as agencies want talented newcomers who understand the latest technology, they also need employees who can maintain legacy applications, particularly those running on one of the oldest computer programming languages: Common Business-Oriented Language, or COBOL.

In March, the Office of Personnel Management released its “Strategic Information Technology Plan,” a vision for revamping the agency’s IT operations, including plans to automate paper-based processes, invest in data analytics and consolidate numerous databases. But maintaining the mainframe hardware and software systems that currently support retirement processes is expensive; according to the agency’s plan, OPM anticipates costs will increases 10 percent to 15 percent annually “as personnel with the necessary coding expertise retire and cannot easily be replaced.”

Further, the plan states, “With other OPM programs already transitioning away from mainframe environments, escalation of future costs would need to be taken from discretionary sources, reducing flexibility for other program areas.” The challenge for OPM and other federal agencies is balancing the cost of maintaining older systems while also investing in new technology.

Many of its systems at the Social Security Administration were developed in the 1960s and 70s. SSA currently has about 60 million lines of COBOL in production that enable the agency to meet its regulatory, benefit and reporting requirements, according to a May report released by the Government Accountability Office.

A Managed Plan to Upgrade from COBOL

In the report, GAO notes a study cited by SSA officials that shows the benefits of totally replacing COBOL would not outweigh the risks of keeping the old programing language in place. But SSA Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Systems Herbert M. Strauss says the agency has a plan to migrate from COBOL to a more modern programming language, such as Java.

Even the Navy is modernizing its legacy technologies where it makes sense from a cost perspective. But here’s the challenge: “Cutting-edge technology may bring useful new capability, but cutting-edge costs money — usually lots of money,” writes Terry Halvorsen, acting Department of Defense CIO, in an April 25 blog post. “These days, money is something the Department of the Navy doesn’t have a lot of. As prudent stewards of DON resources, we have to decide when it makes sense to invest in new technology and when it makes more sense to stay with something that has proven to be reliable and fully supports the DON mission.”

“You would be hard-pressed to find an agency in the federal government that doesn’t have an application written in COBOL, or COBOL to some degree,” says Ed Airey, COBOL product marketing director for software firm Micro Focus. The salary for top talent can reach six figures, and agencies and companies are still awarding contracts today for COBOL software maintenance.

In some cases, installation and testing of other software could result in downtime for critical systems, according to the Treasury Department. COBOL software is installed on IRS equipment, and the department says installing or testing other software could affect operations of its tax processing systems during peak times of the tax season or cause the system to fail if new software is incompatible.

Measuring COBOL's Federal Footprint

The government and financial services sectors have among the largest COBOL footprints, Airey says. Consider these statistics from Micro Focus:

• COBOL applications manage the care of 60 million patients every day.

• COBOL powers 85 percent of all daily business transactions.

• COBOL applications move 72,000 shipping containers every day and process 85 percent of port transactions

Ninety-five percent of all ATM transactions use COBOL.

And not every agency is rushing to move away from COBOL for all of their applications.

“In many cases, however, maintaining an older system that fully supports our mission makes more sense than upgrading it or buying a new system that runs the risk of degrading our mission and requires a large investment,” writes Halvorsen. “The DON and industry still use a programming language developed in 1959 to operate major business functions in finance and personnel.”

But Micro Focus reports that experienced programmers aren’t being produced fast enough to replace an aging workforce of COBOL experts. The company polled 119 universities around the world and found that only 5 percent introduced more than 30 COBOL developers to the job market, compared with 32 percent of universities that introduced more than 30 Java developers to the market. Some educators and students believe that COBOL is outdated and therefore not as valuable as learning other programming languages.

There needs to be a continuous exchange of ideas between the government and academic institutions about the skills students are learning, Airey says. “What I’d like to see is a better conversation between organizations that have this [COBOL] need,” and the academic institutions producing the talent. “That is a definite divide.”

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Jun 02 2014