Microservices will be the new COBOL

Lori MacVittie Miniatura
Lori MacVittie
Published May 04, 2020

The call was heard over through just about every news media outlet. COBOL programmers are desperately needed.

No, this isn't a nostalgic return to Y2K. It was this year, 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The systems that process unemployment claims, you see, were in peril. Developed using COBOL last century, the systems were simply unable to scale to meet overwhelming demand.

The existence of these systems and their underlying technology should not be a surprise. The use of mainframes and systems nearing six decades in age are more common than you might think. Our own research found that, on average, 11% of an enterprise app portfolio remains "mainframes and monoliths."

A Micro Focus survey found that attitudes toward COBOL, in particular, were optimistic:

Modernization was favored over the replacing and retiring of older systems with 63 percent of respondents choosing to improve upon their existing COBOL systems in 2020. Additionally, 92 percent of respondents felt as though their organization’s COBOL applications are strategic in comparison to 84 percent of respondents in 2017. 

COBOL, and the mainframes that continue to support it, are here to stay.

The strategic nature of these applications arises from their implementation and tight integration with business processes. When these apps were developed it was common not just to assist with business processes but rather codify them in an application. For all intents and purposes, these applications are the business.

Moving to the Internet and beyond, applications were augmentation to the business. They acted as another channel through which critical data was transferred to a 'core' system—often a COBOL-developed application running on a mainframe.

Today we are seeing applications move beyond augmentation to replacement. Once again, applications are becoming the digital manifestation of business rather than an assistive method of gathering data. We see this evolution in the three phases of digital transformation, whereby an organization implements, expands, and integrates technology with the business until applications are the business.

Three phrases of digital transformation

A significant percentage of applications being developed during the digital transformation journey are cloud-native, i.e. microservices-based. These applications, like their COBOL forebears, are likely to be so critical that they, too, may still be running fifty or sixty years in the future.

Consider the number of businesses today that cannot run without applications. When point of sale (POS) systems cannot communicate with payment processors, can you still make a purchase? If the bank systems are down, can you make a deposit? Make a withdrawal? Can your employer transfer your paycheck? How much of your home continues to function if you lose power?

The impact of such a deep level of integration is existential. We are already dependent on digital business. As organizations progress on their digital transformation journey, we will continue to see increasing business and consumer dependence on technology. Many business processes will find their first expression as an application. They are not replicating an existing process, but rather creating new ones. These applications are going to be just as critical as (perhaps more than) the COBOL applications we depend on today.

The microservices-based applications being built to forward digital transformation are likely to be running for a very, long time.