IBM is making an AI assistant to modernise old COBOL code

23 Aug 2023

Image: © JHVEPhoto/

The watsonx AI model aims to help developers update COBOL code, while IBM is selling The Weather Company to an investment firm.

IBM has unveiled its latest generative AI creation, which is designed to translate COBOL code to Java and enhance developer productivity.

The new tool is called watsonx and is designed to be a coding assistant for IBM Z. The product is due for release towards the end of 2023, with a preview planned for IBM’s TechXchange conference in Las Vegas next month.

COBOL – or Common Business Oriented Language – is one of the oldest programming languages still in use today, being released in 1959. Despite its age, IBM said this coding language supports many vital business and operational processes globally. A Reuters report in 2017 claimed 95pc of ATM swipes rely on COBOL, while 43pc of banking systems are built on this code.

IBM claims there are billions of lines of COBOL code that could potentially be modernised into higher-quality Java code. The tech giant claims its AI assistant can help developers selectively and incrementally transform COBOL business services.

Dr Kareem Yusuf, senior VP of product management and growth at IBM Software, said the code assistant is designed to take a “targeted and optimised approach”.

“It’s built to rapidly and accurately convert code optimised for IBM Z, accelerate time to market and broaden the skills pool,” Yusuf said. “This can help enhance applications and add new capabilities while preserving the performance, resiliency and security inherent in IBM Z.”

The company said its watsonx product will have 20bn parameters and have knowledge of 115 coding languages, learned from 1.5trn tokens.

Other tech giants have released their own AI coding assistants, such as Microsoft’s GitHub Copilot. In March, Alphabet partnered with AI start-up Replit to help developers edit code using generative AI.

The Weather Company sale

Meanwhile, IBM is optimising its own business by selling The Weather Company, which provides accurate weather data to consumers and businesses. IBM closed the deal to purchase this company in 2016.

IBM is selling the assets of this company to Francisco Partners, a global investment company that specialises in partnering with tech businesses. The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

IBM claims The Weather Company serves roughly 415m people each month through its services. The tech giant claims the new deal will see this company move beyond forecasting, thanks to increased investment from Francisco Partners.

IBM senior VP of software and CCO Rob Thomas said the company has evolved to focus on hybrid cloud and AI and that this deal “reflects our continued focus on these two transformational technologies”.

“We’re proud of what The Weather Company team has accomplished with IBM and we are confident that the best path forward is as a standalone company benefiting from Francisco Partners’ expanded investment, dedication and expertise,” Thomas said.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic