Companies often struggle with the question of how best to keep using their legacy mainframe COBOL applications (and the business knowledge built into them), but still keep their business agile and their costs low. Legacy modernization platform provider Heirloom Computing thinks the answer is to move the applications to the cloud on a pay-as-you-go basis.

The company said its Elastic COBOL PaaS allows companies to securely run the exact same code, only paying for the time they need in the cloud. “Legacy modernization does orient around COBOL applications, typically running on mainframes,” said Heirloom CEO Gary Crook. “But [they also run on] open systems platforms as well. It’s really the idea that you can take those high-value, trusted applications that have been running businesses—both transactionally and operationally—for decades now, and repurpose those in new ways to create unique value to the business.”

Crook created Heirloom with a team of executives from legacy modernization platform provider Micro Focus. They launched Heirloom years ago because they thought that Micro Focus needed to extend its reach into the cloud. But they claim that Micro Focus didn’t want to go there at that time.

“Before Heirloom Computing, I was the Micro Focus executive responsible for product development worldwide,” Crook said. “Around mid-2009, I had moved back to California to work on establishing a new cloud division for Micro Focus. And as things do sometimes, it didn’t go as planned.

“At that time, the executive team at Micro Focus made a decision, which was to put their whole strategic focus on growing a software testing business, which came about through two recent acquisitions they had made. One was the Compuware testing product line and the other one was Borland. Those acquisitions were made kind of early 2009.”

Crook said the Micro Focus folks decided that the strategic focus of the company going forward was going to be in the software testing business. “Consequently, myself and the other founders of Heirloom saw an opportunity then to innovate in the legacy modernization space,” he said. “Not just around the COBOL stack, but more broadly also. And that’s the reason we started Heirloom. This was no kind of negative on Micro Focus at all; I had a great time working there, as did we all. It’s a great company. But we just felt that we saw an opportunity here that they weren’t going to be addressing.”

Micro Focus’ perspective
Kevin Brearley, senior director of product management at Micro Focus, explained the company’s business goals much differently. According to him, Micro Focus bought Borland’s testing technology just to supplement its own legacy modernization efforts because of customer demand.

“[Micro Focus’] foray into the testing market is purely to support our modernization strategy,” he said. “We’re not focused on testing. Because of the modernization piece, we understand the COBOL really well. We’ve got the development tools to do it and the ability to move everything. So, to enhance that, [we] bought Borland and their testing technology just to augment that process.”

According to Brearley, Micro Focus is still very much based on legacy application modernization. “[This means] changing them, enhancing them, making them mobile, putting them on different platforms, without changing the applications much,” he said. “We want to keep [them] very close to the original because then we take out the risk and we do it a lot quicker. Our customers are more comfortable with that than doing a rewrite or a replacement kind of strategy.”

Heirloom is, likewise, focused on legacy applications, typically COBOL, CICS and JCL applications, according to Crook. “What we do is we take those key components and we put them through [our Elastic COBOL], which is a traditional application-development and deployment product for COBOL that runs in Eclipse. And we compile them so they execute 100% as Java applications,” he said.

Crook said the reason targeting Java is so important is because the one thing that unifies all the cloud platforms in the market today is their Java execution layer. “What this means is, we can take a mainframe COBOL, CICS, JCL application and run it, to date, on 11 different cloud platforms,” he said. “And that’s simply because we target the Java platform first. Then the cloud platform runs that as a Java application.”

While Heirloom modernizes COBOL legacy applications by changing the COBOL code into Java, Micro Focus said that this is not needed. “A lot of people will look at it [and say it’s] got to be in Java or something sexy like that,” said Brearley. “That it’s got to be new, contemporary and so on. But that’s not true.

“Micro Focus has tens of thousands of customers out there, for many years, and they’ve written applications using COBOL. What Micro Focus does is provide them the environment [where] they can take those COBOL applications forward without having to change them. What I mean by that is, we can run COBOL applications on Windows, on Linux, on Unix, etc. We can run COBOL applications in the cloud today [as well].”

Going forward, both companies agree that there will always be a need to modernize those COBOL application infrastructures and make them more agile. “When you boil it down…it really is about making the business more agile,” Crook said. “And you can’t do that in today’s competitive environment by simply maintaining your existing infrastructure, existing data centers and the old way of doing business. You have to find ways to liberate those high-value, trusted systems in new and different ways because the market’s changing.”

Crook believed that cloud computing is the future for this. “I think most of the industry agrees as well, [that success in keeping your business agile] is going to be around how you embrace the benefits of cloud computing,” he said.