watsonx Code Assistant for Z: The Next Evolution in COBOL Modernization

watsonx Code Assistant for Z The Next Evolution in COBOL Modernization

The News: IBM today announced watsonx Code Assistant for Z. This new generative AI-assisted solution will help enable faster translation of COBOL to Java on IBM Z and enhances developer productivity on the platform. This product will be generally available in Q4 2023, and is being designed to help accelerate COBOL application modernization. To find out more, see the press release on IBM’s website.

watsonx Code Assistant for Z: The Next Evolution in COBOL Modernization

Analyst Take: Mainframe modernization stands at a pivotal crossroads in today’s technology market, with vendors taking differing perspectives based on their respective incentives. As organizations grapple with burgeoning data demands, blending legacy systems with contemporary applications and delivering outcomes at the speed required by the pace of innovation is both a challenge and an opportunity. In disrupting the status quo, IBM has arguably the most to lose but also the most to gain. Whereas IBM would have previously played the long and safe game, under Arvind Krishna’s leadership, the company is willing to disrupt itself and the wider market to deliver on the promise of both AI and hybrid cloud.

Leading-edge solutions like watsonx Code Assistant for Z are emerging as game-changers, enabling seamless transitions from COBOL to Java. These innovations signify a growing trend and investment in agile methodologies that respect legacy foundations while embracing future potential. The market’s interest in these solutions reflects an underlying commitment to efficiency, innovation, and strategic technological advancement.

The State of the COBOL Code Base

Many commentators will tell you that COBOL is an old language and that the developers who code in it are a dying breed. While the fact that COBOL is over 60 years old is true, the latter is certainly not true. The Open Mainframe Project, (OMP), a Linux Foundation Collaborative Project formed in 2015 to foster open source on the mainframe platform, has focused on COBOL and empowering the community to develop new skills by forming a COBOL working group. The working group’s mission is to promote the language by changing its perception and making materials more accessible to help more developers and students learn it on their mainframe journey. The OMP has also focused on COBOL checking with an open-source project designed to provide a unit testing framework for COBOL to help COBOL programmers who have difficulties with contemporary development methods such as test-driven development.

While many will decry COBOL, it is still pervasively deployed in many organizations globally, with estimates putting the amount of code still in production at 800 billion lines. Net net, many large corporations still rely on COBOL for much of their mission-critical work.

What Has IBM Announced?

Watsonx Code Assistant for Z, a cutting-edge tool in IBM’s expansive mainframe modernization toolkit, will no doubt make waves in the mainframe modernization sphere. With the power of IBM’s Application Discovery and Delivery Intelligence (ADDI) inventory and analysis tool, it strategically pinpoints prime candidates ripe for modernization. But it does not stop there. Utilizing generative AI, this innovative assistant takes on a multitude of roles, from refactoring vital business services in COBOL to transforming them into highly optimized Java code. The brilliance of the system is further highlighted in its final phase, where the transformation’s success is meticulously validated through automated testing, ensuring precision and quality in a rapidly evolving technological landscape.

watsonx Code Assistant for Z rests upon a finely tuned foundation model, built to leverage generative AI. The ultimate goal? To accelerate time to value, foster increased agility, and alleviate developer skill constraints in places where the time to train new developers is not an option. Though the final product is still under development, an early glimpse into the prototype reveals its promising potential.

The tool provides an insightful exploration into monolithic COBOL applications and will help in extracting business services from COBOL. Its automated refactoring capabilities, such as ADDI, assist developers in understanding application dependencies and generating a metadata repository.

A vivid example can be drawn from a prototype demo, working with a sample insurance application that IBM shared as part of the announcement. The specific goal here is to modernize the code for onboarding new customers on z/OS, extracting relevant business services, and understanding links between COBOL programs and data tables. The innovation announced by IBM extends beyond analysis. Once the relevant code is identified, the watsonx Code Assistant for Z utilizes its AI prowess to convert COBOL into Java. The process ensures object-oriented design, not merely a translation, elegantly transforming modules into new Java classes.

For instance, the AI seamlessly translates COBOL prompts into natural Java code during customer onboarding, which will resonate with any seasoned Java developer. The watsonx prototype’s suggested elegance lies in its translation abilities and stringent measures to ensure the equivalence between Java and the original COBOL. Auto-generated test cases scrutinize every probable code path, validating the accuracy and functionality of the new code.

watsonx Code Assistant for Z is planned to be launched later in the year and is currently a collaboration between IBM Research and the product teams, and I fully expect it to evolve continually as IBM brings this capability to market.

Looking Ahead

Framing this announcement as a way to enable people to get off the mainframe, which I have already seen some commentators do, does not fully capture the ethos of this announcement. The migration off narrative is powered by a misconception that Java only runs on x86 architectures and that the public cloud is the rightful home for Java.

Many mainframes run Java in production today, at scale, and have done for years. IBM supports Jaza on ZIIP engines and also on Linux on Z engines. In fact, one could argue the exact opposite and say that Java runs best on the mainframe with features such as pauseless garbage collection, providing unrivalled performance and, in IBM testing, as fast as 2x the speeds observed on x86 platforms with the latest Telum processor found in the latest z16 generation of systems.

IBM’s watsonx Code Assistant for Z embodies the essence of innovation prevalent at IBM these days in the era of modernizing mainframe software development. This solution looks to bridge the gap between heritage COBOL systems and Java applications and stands as a testament to the future’s promise and provides yet another proof point that the mainframe in all its guises is a robust component of a modern, cloud-native, hybrid cloud deployment architecture.

Disclosure: The Futurum Group is a research and advisory firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this article. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this article.

Analysis and opinions expressed herein are specific to the analyst individually and data and other information that might have been provided for validation, not those of The Futurum Group as a whole.

Other insights from The Futurum Group:

Mainframe Goes Mini: IBM Announces Latest Updates to z16 Family

IBM Launches watsonx: Powerful New Platform for AI Base Models Leverages Foundation Models to Accelerate AI Application Development

Author Information

Regarded as a luminary at the intersection of technology and business transformation, Steven Dickens is the Vice President and Practice Leader for Hybrid Cloud, Infrastructure, and Operations at The Futurum Group. With a distinguished track record as a Forbes contributor and a ranking among the Top 10 Analysts by ARInsights, Steven's unique vantage point enables him to chart the nexus between emergent technologies and disruptive innovation, offering unparalleled insights for global enterprises.

Steven's expertise spans a broad spectrum of technologies that drive modern enterprises. Notable among these are open source, hybrid cloud, mission-critical infrastructure, cryptocurrencies, blockchain, and FinTech innovation. His work is foundational in aligning the strategic imperatives of C-suite executives with the practical needs of end users and technology practitioners, serving as a catalyst for optimizing the return on technology investments.

Over the years, Steven has been an integral part of industry behemoths including Broadcom, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), and IBM. His exceptional ability to pioneer multi-hundred-million-dollar products and to lead global sales teams with revenues in the same echelon has consistently demonstrated his capability for high-impact leadership.

Steven serves as a thought leader in various technology consortiums. He was a founding board member and former Chairperson of the Open Mainframe Project, under the aegis of the Linux Foundation. His role as a Board Advisor continues to shape the advocacy for open source implementations of mainframe technologies.


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