Development Tools Keep Cobol Current

Many developers think of Cobol as you might think of 38-year-old Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway: old, yes, but supremely effective.

In an era of distributed and Internet computing, the 39-year-old language isn't consigned to obsolescence. Server- and workstation-based development tools from several vendors let Cobol developers repurpose their code for client/server and Internet environments.

Extending Cobol code can be less expensive than rewriting an application in a younger language or maintaining a costly Cobol mainframe environment.

VIP Systems Inc., an insurance data processing outsourcer in Oklahoma City, is porting its Cobol code and data to Windows NT using a beta copy of Net Express 3.0, made by Micro Focus Group Public Ltd. in Newbury, England. The product was released today.

"You don't want to throw 30 years of Cobol code in the trash," said Charles Ebert, a vice president at VIP. The ported code, running on VIP's new 266-MHz Pentium II-based NT server connected to RAID storage, is 14 times faster than the original code on a Unisys Corp. mainframe, Ebert said.

While VIP has spent two years rehosting and testing the application, buying a new mainframe could have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars up front, thousands more to maintain and more yet for upgrades, said David Siekman, VIP's president.

Development tools such as Net Express, Acucorp Inc.'s Acucobol-GT, Fujitsu America Inc.'s Cobol and IBM's VisuaAge for Cobol let users develop applications with visual controls in a graphical environment.

Net Express and Acucobol let users embed Cobol business logic in Web applications, said Ed Arranga, editor of the "Cobol Report," a newsletter based in Orinda, California.

In many cases, Arranga said, the tools have helped companies avoid rewriting their Cobol applications from scratch.

Many information technology groups, such as the customer information services unit of Texas Utility Services, have developers with extensive experience in Cobol but not other languages. Larry Price is testing the Fujitsu tool to see whether it can build on those skills and the company's code base.