White Papers

08-04-2016

The Solution for the Aging RPG and Cobol

This white paper will go in-depth and look at the full picture of RPG & COBOL’s history, current situation, the future, and how this looming problem will be fixed.

Executive Summary

The languages RPG and COBOL have been around for over 50 years and are nearing an end point in their life cycle. These programming languages have been experiencing a rapid decline in their usage since the peak of the AS/400 in 1996. For the past decade, IBM has made decisions to distance themselves from the platform and have left companies stranded trying to support an end of life platform. Due to an increase in scarcity of RPG talent, companies are faced with an extremely limited pool to hire from, exacerbating the situation. This white paper will go in depth and look at the full picture of RPG & COBOL’s history, current situation, the future, and how this looming problem will be fixed. 

Current Situation

RPG is a programming language that was developed by IBM in 1959. RPG stands for Report Program Generator, and was designed to produce reports from data files and replicate IBM’s punched card processing. Variations were developed through the years and in the 1960’s RPG II was created for the IBM System/3 series of computers, which included System/32, 34, and 36. In the early 1980’s IBM developed RPG III and RPG/400. RPG IV and RPG/FREE were based on the EBCDIC character set and were created in 2001 to integrate with the OS/400 or IBM i as it was renamed in 2008. To date IBM has developed more than seven different versions of the RPG language, but its once wide spread popularity has begun to dwindle.  The decline of RPG can be attributed to multiple factors which include the age of RPG programmers, the inability of the AS/400 to use modern applications, and the downfall of IBM. RPG reached its peak in the late 1980’s which paralleled the rise of the AS/400 in the following years to come. At this time RPG began to experience a slow decline in popularity which was also reflected in IBM as a whole.

The value of interconnectivity and device integration is critical to the success of every business. The AS/400’s proprietary structure cannot compete in today’s market where businesses are seeking solutions for complete system integration on open source platforms. The desire to connect with modern applications written on Linux or Windows, as well as the use of standard databases like Oracle or MS SQL Server, have created an industry consensus that IBM’s closed source structure is inadequate and undesirable. 

As of April 2016, IBM reached a historical low in quarterly sales and has continuously shown a negative quarterly income since Q1 of 2012. IBM seeks to adopt modern business practices which revolve around movement from their core server to the cloud, as well as the development of analytical software in hopes of increasing profitability. Revenue from the AS/400 comes primarily from service and support, with little from actual hardware sales, which have consistently decreased since 1996.

On March 2nd, 2016, IBM disclosed massive layoffs within the company to allocate funding towards IBM’s Cloud computing venture. In this strategy, IBM is abandoning their legacy platform to finance this venture at a total workforce layoff of an estimated 20 to 25%. Infoworld contributor and journalist Robert Cringely delivers a consensus view of the AS/400 platform in an article titled “What’s happening at IBM (it’s dying).” Cringely, as well as the vast majority of IT leaders, believe that IBM is showing symptoms of their final stage of life. 

Alternative Programming Languages

Few programming languages have remained at the forefront of business application development like RPG or COBOL. Both languages have remained staples of business programming worldwide and they are joined in this tier by C. Over several decades since the inception of business computing there are companies which today still survive on their ancient RPG and COBOL applications. RPG, the proprietary language of IBM, is married to the IBM AS/400 (System i) which is itself a highly proprietary system; as a consequence, the language is rapidly fading from existence. Finding talented RPG programmers who know how to work within the environment of OS/400 is a challenge for any organization.  

Companies which rely on the AS/400 platform for their business critical applications are left with few options to replace the aging system. Migrating applications and data is the most obvious alternative for companies who are tied to the platform. There are a few other options for companies looking to leave the platform including rewriting the business logic of their applications or abandoning the platform outright. These alternatives are often costly affairs, which require years to rewrite business critical applications with no guarantee of success.

As RPG has continued its decline in popularity other languages have risen to prominence. The most commonly used, and most popular, languages in the world include: C, C++, C#, Java, and a handful of others. Migrating applications from the closed structure of the AS/400 and recompiling them into any of these languages provides an ideal solution for industry leaders looking to modernize their infrastructure.  By maintaining their codebase in a popular language, employers can be assured that their mission critical applications are well supported by their staff. 

RPG ranks #39 on the TIOBE index, a popular indicator of which programming languages are in usage by developers. COBOL ranks #21, likely a result of its continued usage in mainframe.  The most popular languages are also the most stable languages; C for example has remained a contender in the top 3 for over three decades. It is of critical importance to companies who require secure and workable applications to have a codebase which is maintainable going forward. 

The Future

In October of 2014, IBM agreed to pay Globalfoundries $1.5 billion to take IBM’s POWER chip production unit off its hands. IBM stated, “Globalfoundries will be IBM’s exclusive provider of specific POWER processors for the next 10 years, in exchange for access to IBM’s intellectual property.” As a component of the agreement, IBM will provide a 1.5-billion-dollar stipend over the course of three years. Without this subsidy, the cost of the POWER chip is expected to skyrocket in order to meet production costs. Risk adverse industry leaders should take note of the potential for rapid price volatility and plan to modernize their infrastructure accordingly. 

Companies which rely on legacy applications are faced with the threat of losing the business logic of their applications before they have time to re-engineer or replace them. As the RPG talent in the market increases in scarcity, it poses a threat to companies that are dependent on AS/400 applications. Companies face a risk to their operations if programmers who maintain and manage these business critical applications exit the workforce. The options for replacing a platform include a rewrite or purchase of a commercial off the shelf product (COTS). 

Companies investigating a prospective rewrite should carefully weigh the pros and cons. Due to the intraconnectedness of the OS/400 it is virtually impossible to recreate the business logic that drives RPG applications. Valuable design information needs to be recovered from existing applications before a rewrite can be attempted. The most critical component of this recovery process is the business rules, which consist of transactional business logic and relational data architecture. The process of recovering business rules is extremely tedious and time consuming. Even with this knowledge, it is extremely difficult to recreate the full range of functionality in the existing applications.
 
The standard COTS package does not adequately address the needs of industry. When attempting to roll out the COTS package, it is inevitable that features must be custom written for the needs of the business. This typically devolves into a mad scramble to recreate preexisting functionalities. The duration of this process can be anywhere from months to decades. The prohibitive implementation time of COTS deployment results in a high degree of risk associated with the process.
Regardless of a company’s decision to rewrite or implement COTS software, there is a very real possibility of failure. Even with their existing RPG resources available, there is no guarantee of a smooth implementation. The IT world is rife with horror stories of failed rewrites, unreadable code and long deployment processes. Consequently, it comes as no surprise industry leaders feel stranded dealing with this end of life platform.

The Decline in RPG Talent

Experienced programmers that work in older forms of RPG are extremely valuable to global leaders that have mission critical applications. Unfortunately, these programmers fall into an elderly demographic with 45% of the talent pool above the age of 51. In 2013, an interview conducted by IT Jungle’s Alex Woodie stated, “IBM i shops want five years of RPG plus three years of JD Edwards, and then wonder why they don't get applicants who are willing to accept the junior programmer rates they are offering." This is a concern for many companies looking into the future that want to continue to maintain their applications in RPG programming languages.
 
This continually declining supply of RPG talent has left companies in a conundrum. A revealing 2011 LinkedIn study provided good insight into the employment conditions, stating over 65% of RPG programmers are expected to leave the workforce within the next decade. The level of seniority required to land even an entry level job as an RPG programmer is an indication of the barriers to new programmers within the market. The quote presented in the previous paragraph confirms the reality for many prospective RPG programmers, and the message is foreboding if not downright prohibitive. There is no generation of future RPG programmers waiting in the wings, nor will one be coming. Given the state of the modern IT job market, it is unlikely that there is any chance for programmers who are familiar with modern languages such as Java or C to leave their comfort zone and study a highly proprietary language like RPG.

Infinite's Solution

The most logical decision for companies facing this dilemma will be to migrate their data and AS/400 applications to a modern platform. This provides companies with a minimally invasive, cost effective method to retaining the value in their custom written AS/400 applications. Infinite’s solution is completely painless, does not pose a threat to current operations, and typically takes only 90 days to implement. This option allows companies to streamline their disparate infrastructure by removing their AS/400 from their stack. Industry leaders can enjoy the benefits of a standard database such as Oracle or SQL server in addition to taking advantage of modern operating systems like Linux and Windows, respectively. 

Conclusion

RPG was developed by IBM in 1959, and has seen extensive use over the past half century.  Its usage is a testament to the power and simplicity of the language. However, RPG is quickly becoming an end of life language. Companies which rely on the AS/400 to maintain their standards of operational and management excellence are left without many options for abandoning the platform. Infinite provides a solution which allows companies to re-host their RPG or COBOL applications written for the AS/400 to Windows or Linux. Organizations which find themselves spending an increasingly large sum of money for increasing diminished returns in innovation and quality rely on solutions from Infinite to maintain the quality of their business critical applications.

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