Legacy issues: 200 times more COBOL transactions today than Google searches

12 Jun 2014

(From left) Dr Goetz Botterweck, Dr Jim Buckley and Dr Sebastian Herold

Software engineering research centre Lero in Limerick has won industry commitments worth €400,000 for software modernisation programmes to tackle the problem of ageing software still at the heart of vital financial and transport systems.

For example, 50 years after its launch, there are still 200 times more COBOL transactions in the world than Google searches.

“The reality is that there is a lot of old software out there which is still at the heart of many critical applications, particularly in the area of financial transactions,” Lero’s chief scientist Brian Fitzgerald said.

Lero researcher Dr Jim Buckley of the Computer Science and Information Systems Department at the University of Limerick, added these systems grow into old age because “they are so crucial they are often the company’s flagship products.”

Old software to blame for major IT failures

He said that elongated maintenance has meant legacy software can become resistant to further change at a time when business innovation demands faster, not slower, evolution of these systems.

“The failure of RBS and Ulster Bank ATMs in the summer of 2012 are examples of what can happen when you try to maintain such ageing software,” said Buckley.

The crisis is being exacerbated by an ageing COBOL staff worldwide. A Computerworld survey of 357 IT professionals in 2012 found almost half (46pc) of the respondents said they are already noticing a COBOL programmer shortage. Fifty per cent said the average age of their COBOL staff is 45 or older and 22pc said the age is 55 or older.

Dr Goetz Botterweck, Lero’s expert for model-driven software engineering, added, “On the one hand, you want to preserve the essential functionality and value of the product despite fast-paced modernisation.

“On the other hand, there is a lot of technical detail which programmers are unsure of – so you are looking for a means to separate ‘the chaff from the wheat’, getting rid of the outdated parts.

“However, due to the complexity of the system and hidden dependencies, it is difficult to foresee the impact of a change. And the fact that often the only up-to-date ‘documentation’ is the system itself does not help.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years