The hardest part of moving COBOL code to Microsoft Windows was convincing the business users that it could be done,
recalls Michael J. Grant, vice president, applications development at Simon & Schuster.
"It was hard at the time to convince people that Windows could run what they were seeing on the mainframe," he said of the book publisher's transfer of five million lines of COBOL to a .NET environment. "That was harder to sell than anything else."
Now, two years into the modernization project, he says the point has been proven. When Alchemy, the vendor for the COBOL to .NET transformation, sends prospective customers over to see the Simon & Schuster implementation, Grant said, "They see a mainframe system running in Internet Explorer."
The business users initial skepticism is perhaps justified because the system being modernized was the heart of the book publisher's entire enterprise.
Simon & Schuster had five major systems on the mainframe including order processing, manufacturing, sales and invoicing, returns, and financials. The code was written in Customer Information Control System (CICS)/COBOL. The data was stored in DB/2 databases and used virtual storage access method (VSAM) files.
In 1978, it would have been state-of-the-art.
But in the new millennium, sales and marketing people working with Blackberry's found it difficult to wait on a mainframe system built to update inventory in overnight batches. Bringing the system into the 21st Century as well as reducing the legacy system maintenance costs were primary motivators for the modernization project.
The first thing Grant and his colleagues did was study the options for modernization. They looked at moving to a Unix-based environment and re-writing the five million lines of legacy code, he recalled. "The costs there were prohibitive."
They also looked into packaged ERP systems from the leading vendors, including Oracle and SAP. But because Simon & Schuster is in the unique business of printing, distributing, marketing and selling books, there was a lot of valuable unique business logic in the legacy programs.
"What we realized was our software was custom for the most part to how we wanted to do business," Grant said. "There were a lot of business rules baked into our existing code. There wasn't a feeling that changing our business model to fit an SAP or Oracle system would make sense for us."
Finding a solution
Despairing of finding a solution, Grant and a co-workers found a website for Fujitsu technology for porting COBOL to a Windows-based system.
The legacy modernization products from Fujitsu Computer Systems Corp. were recently acquired by Alchemy Solutions, Inc., a Bend, Oregon-based startup, which is now marketing the Fujitsu NetCOBOL line of products outside of Japan.
NetCOBOL provides the technology for migrating COBOL off the mainframe and into the .NET environment where it can run on more modern and less expensive hardware and interact with applications written in newer Microsoft languages, such as Visual Basic and C#.
"It is exclusive to .NET," says Gartner analyst Dale Vecchio. "It utilizes Fujitsu's NetCOBOL compiler for Windows. So this is a fully supported COBOL dialect in Visual Studio, on an equal footing with every other language in Visual Studio .NET"
In NetCOBOL, Fujitsu created a way to emulate IBM mainframe functionality so it can deal with the batch update paradigm of the 1970s, the Gartner analyst explained.
NetCOBOL worked as advertised in the Simon & Schuster implementation, Grant said. The Microsoft-centric nature of the product was no problem for his IT organization which has standardized on .NET.
"Our CICS migrated to ASPX pages, our COBOL was not changed that much – there were some changes that we needed to do but those changes were cookie cutter – and there were consultants who could help us do that," he said.
Simon & Schuster hired Tata Consultancy Services to do the transfer work.
"We outsourced the porting of the COBOL from the mainframe to the Windows-based systems," Grant explained. "The CICS ported very cleanly. We also migrated from DB2 and Oracle in some other areas to SQL Server.
Rather than going with blade servers, Simon & Schuster opted for a 32-bit, eight-processor Unisys ES7000 box running Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition.
While the applications have been off the mainframe for several years now, the change seems transparent to the users, and little or no training was required for the new Web-based interface.
"The business users still call it the mainframe system even though it's coming up in their IE Explorer," Grant said.
Savings exceed expectations
Grant estimates the company saved as much as 80 percent by going the COBOL porting to Windows route rather than re-writing the application in Unix.
As for ROI, he notes: "We exceeded what our savings expectations were."
Moving from mainframe batch processing to a more responsive system cut the shipping backlog by 33 percent, according to data on Simon & Schuster that was compiled by Microsoft. Reduced support costs gained from junking the mainframe is estimated at 11 percent of the IT operating budget.