Navigating IBM COBOL 4.2 End of Support Waters: Chart a course to benefit your business

Surprisingly, COBOL has been in the news a lot recently, due to its significant usage in many federal govern-ment and state systems, most recently with unemployment systems, being in the news. With the global COVID-19 pandemic, those unemployment systems were stressed like never before with a 1600% increase in traffic (Government Computer News, May 12, 2020) as those impacted by the pandemic filed claims.

Nevertheless, there is another impending event that will likely pull COBOL back into the news as IBM withdraws older versions of the COBOL compiler from service. All IBM product versions go through a lifecycle that starts with GA (general availability), after some time moves to EOM (end of marketing) where IBM no longer sells that version, and ends with EOS (end of support) where IBM no longer supports that product or version. It is at this point that most customers will need to decide to stop using that product or upgrade to a newer version because IBM will no longer fix or support EOS products or versions.

Of course, code that was compiled using an unsupported COBOL compiler will continue to run, but it is not wise to use unsupported software for important, mission-critical software, such as is usually written using COBOL. And you need to be aware of interoperability issues if you rely on more than one version of the COBOL compiler.

So what is going on in the world of COBOL that will require your attention? First of all, earlier this year on April 30, 2020, IBM withdrew support for Enterprise COBOL 5.1 and 5.2. And Enterprise COBOL 4.2 will be withdrawn from service on April 30, 2022 – just about two years from now.

So now is the time for your organization to think about its migration strategy.

Why is COBOL still being used?

Sometimes people who do not work in a mainframe environment are surprised that COBOL is still being used. But it is, and it is not just a fringe language. COBOL is a language that was designed for business data processing, and it is extremely well-suited for that purpose. It provides features for manipulating data and printing reports that are common business requirements. COBOL was purposely designed for applications that perform transaction processing like payroll, banking, airline booking, etc. You put data in, process that data, and send results out.

COBOL was invented in 1959, so its history stretches back over 60 years; a lot of time for organizations to build complex applications to support their business. And IBM has delivered new capabilities and features over the years that enable organizations to keep up to date as they maintain their application portfolio.

So, COBOL is in wide use across many industries.

A majority of global financial transactions are processed using COBOL, including processing 85 percent of the world’s ATM swipes. According to Reuters, almost 3 trillion dollars in DAILY commerce flows through COBOL systems!

The reality is that more than 30 billion COBOL transactions run every day. And there are more than 220 billion lines of COBOL in use today. COBOL is not dead…

 What’s new in COBOL 6

With COBOL 5.1 and 5.2 already out of support, and COBOL 4.2 soon to follow, one migration path is to Enterprise COBOL 6, and IBM has already delivered three releases of it: 6.1, 6.2, and 6.3. There are some nice new features that are in the latest version(s) of IBM Enterprise COBOL, including:

  • • Compile and runtime support delivering performance improvements for z15 hardware and z/OS 2.4 operating system
  • •Increased compiler capacity making it possible to compile and optimize larger programs (6.1)
  • •64-bit (AMODE 64) support in this compiler enables users to process large data tables that require greater than 2 GB of addressing space (6.3)
  • •JSON support (6.1) including JSON PARSE statement (6.2)
  • •Support for many new features from the COBOL 2002/2014 programming standards including new statements like ALLOCATE, FREE and INITIALIZE; addition of Dynamic Length elementary items; conditional compilation using the DEFINE compiler option, and more
  • •Many new compiler options
  • •Improved usability with USS

At the same time, there are concerns that need to be considered if and when you migrate to version 6. One example is that the new compiler will take longer to compile programs than earlier versions – from 5 to 12 times longer depending on the optimization level. There are also additional work data sets required and additional memory considerations that need to be addressed to ensure the compiler works properly. As much as 20 times more memory may be needed to compile than with earlier versions of the compiler.

Some additional compatibility issues to keep in mind are that your executables are required to be stored in PDSE data sets and that COBOL 6 programs cannot call or be called by OS/VS COBOL programs.

And of course, one of the biggest issues when migrating from COBOL 4.2 to a new version of COBOL is the possibility of invalid data – even if you have not changed your data or your program (other than re-compiling in COBOL 6). This happens because the new code generator may optimize the code differently. That is to say, you can get different generated code sequences for the same COBOL source with COBOL 6 than with 4.2 and earlier versions of COBOL. While this can help minimize CPU usage (a good thing) it can cause invalid data to be processed differently, causing different behavior at runtime (a bad thing).

Whether you will experience invalid data processing issues depends on your specific data and how your programmers coded to access it. Some examples of processing that may cause invalid data issues include invalid data in numeric USAGE DISPLAY data items; parameter/argument size mismatches; using TRUNC() with binary data values having more digits than they are defined for in working storage; and data items that are used before they have been assigned a value.

Migration considerations

Keep in mind that migration will be a lengthy process for any medium-to-large organization, mostly due to testing application behavior after compilation, and comparing it to pre-compilation behavior. You need to develop a plan that best suits your organization’s requirements and work to implement it in the roughly 2-year timeframe before IBM Enterprise COBOL 4.2 goes out of support.

Things to consider:

  • • Gartner research shows that “huge ‘all-or-nothing’ modernization programs often fail to meet expectations”
  • • What is your current state? Which COBOL compilers are you using and what is your end goal (6.1, 6.2, 6.3)?
  • • Remember that compiled programs will continue to run, so it may not be imperative to re-compile everything prior to the end of support date. Of course, it can be difficult to keep track of what has been converted and what has not if you do not have a plan moving forward other than “convert when the program has to be changed at some point.” And it can become difficult to keep track of all the requirements and incompatibilities for multiple versions of COBOL if you do not plan for, and eventually convert to a newer compiler version.
  • • Do you have the COBOL talent and knowledge not only to convert but to continue supporting your existing portfolio of COBOL applications?
  • • Enterprise application portfolios can be quite large, making it difficult to effectively discover and map all of the dependencies. Consider using tools to help. 

Migration challenges and Options to Consider

As you put your plan together, you might consider converting some of your COBOL applications to Java. An impending event such as the end of support for a compiler is a prime opportunity for doing so. But why might you want to convert your COBOL programs to Java?

Well, it can be difficult to obtain and keep skilled COBOL programmers. As COBOL coders age and retire, there are fewer and fewer programmers with the needed skills to manage and maintain all of the COBOL programs out there. At the same time, there are many skilled Java programmers available on the market, and universities are churning out more every year.

Additionally, Java code is portable, so if you ever want to move it to another platform it is much easier to do that with Java than with COBOL. Furthermore, it is easier to adopt cloud technologies and gain the benefits of elastic compute with Java programs.

Cost reduction can be another valid reason to consider converting from COBOL to Java. Java programs can be run on zIIP processors, which can reduce the cost of running your applications. A workload that runs on zIIPs is not subject to IBM (and most ISV) licensing charges… and, as every mainframe shop knows, the cost of software rises as capacity on the mainframe rises. But if capacity can be redirected to a zIIP processor, then software license charges do not accrue – at least for that workload.

Additional benefits of zIIPs include:

  • They are significantly cheaper to acquire than standard CPs
  • When workload is redirected to a zIIP it frees up capacity on the standard CP

So, there are many reasons to consider converting at least some of your COBOL programs to Java. Some may be worried about Java performance, but Java performance is similar to COBOL these days; in other words, most of the performance issues of the past have been resolved. Furthermore, there are many tools to help you develop, manage, and test your Java code, both on the mainframe and other platforms.

Keeping in mind the concerns about “all-or-nothing” conversions, most organizations will be working toward a mix of COBOL migrations and Java conversions, with a mix of COBOL and Java being the end results. As you plan for this be sure to analyze and select appropriate candidate programs and applications for conversion to Java. There are tools that can analyze program functionality to assist you in choosing which the best candidates. For example, you may want to avoid converting programs that frequently call other COBOL programs and programs that use pre-relational DBMS technologies (such as IDMS and IMS).

How to convert COBOL to Java

At this point, you may be thinking, “Sure, I can see the merit in converting some of my programs to Java, but how can I do that? I don’t have the time for my developers to re-create COBOL programs in Java going line-by-line!” Of course, you don’t!

This is where an automated tool comes in handy. The CloudFrame Migration Suite provides code conversion tools, automation, and DevOps integration to deliver very maintainable, object-oriented Java that can integrate with modern technology available within your open architecture.  It can be used to refactor COBOL source code to Java without changing data, schedulers, and other infrastructure components. It is fully automated and seamlessly integrates with the change management systems you already use on the mainframe.

The Java code generated by CloudFrame will operate the same as your COBOL and produce the same output. There are even options you can use to maintain the COBOL 4.2 treatment of data, thereby avoiding the invalid data issues that can occur when you migrate to COBOL 6. This can help to reduce project testing and remediation time.

It is also possible to use CloudFrame to refactor your COBOL programs to Java but keep maintaining the code in COBOL. Such an approach, as described in this blog post (Consider Cross-Compiling COBOL to Java to Reduce Costs), can allow you to keep using your COBOL programmers for maintenance but to gain the zIIP eligibility of Java when you run the code.


Users of IBM Enterprise COBOL 4.2 need to be aware of the imminent end of service date in April 2022 and make appropriate plans for migrating off of the older compiler.

This can be a great opportunity to consider what should remain COBOL and where the opportunities to modernize to Java are.  Learn how CloudFrame can help you navigate that journey. Posted by Craig S. Mullins


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