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How COBOL is helping to move business applications to mobile

Social media and web 2.0 applications have prompted users to expect a similar experience and accessibility from their business applications. As a result, organisations who wish to future proof their businesses need to ensure that their business apps are adapted for mobile use in order to remain competitive.


As it stands, applications written in COBOL accounts for over 70 per cent of the world’s business applications, according to Gartner. There are more transactions processed daily by COBOL than there are Google searches made. Its ability to constantly evolve to keep pace with new technological developments and low-overheads mean that it is perfectly positioned to allow businesses to adapt their business applications to the world of mobile.

Research has revealed that an average person interacts with a COBOL application at least ten times a day, with many of the mobile banking applications presently in use run on data from mainframe applications written in COBOL years ago. For many, COBOL provides the services and experiences that we rely on daily however they may not realise that these services are powered by COBOL technology. COBOL remains as a vital part of our lives, and an important supporting asset for today’s business operations.

With so many COBOL based business applications being used it makes more sense to re-use, taking advantage of the years of business value built up in these applications, than start from scratch and re-write in a different language and environment. At present COBOL is not deployed directly on a mobile device but instead users are able to extend COBOL- based applications or business rules on the mainframe into a re-usable "service" that any consumer can access via the internet from any mobile device. Deploying COBOL based application, natively, on a mobile device is certainly an area of focus. Certain business user cases require local processing of business data on the device, particularly in scenarios where consistent wireless or GSM access is not available.

Going Mobile

The beauty of using COBOL as a programming language is its simplicity and therefore adaptability. It is this that makes more than a 50 year old programming language remain at the core of many business applications today and also suitable to take businesses into the future as well. As a result, there are many development advantages to using COBOL for mobile applications.

Using tools such as Visual Studio or Eclipse, a developer can build a mobile-based application on a variety of technical platforms; COBOL can be applied in each instance to facilitate efficient data delivery from the mainframe to the user. In this model, COBOL would serve as the data delivery engine to the mobile presentation interface. The benefits of this method include ensuring data integrity, data security, data monitoring as well as data privacy as the information would remain on the mainframe.

With modern developments in tooling for mobile applications, developers can now use the best of both worlds - combining modern tooling for rich, interactive interface design and efficient, high performance and secure data delivery with COBOL.

Most organisations will already have COBOL implemented to some extent in their IT infrastructures so the investment has already been made. The benefits of this method mean that organisations can simply extend that investment to deliver select data to the mobile consumer.

The ability to provide platform agnostic service delivery also means that the mobile user is removed from any technical complexities that may exist on the mainframe. The additional beauty of this model is that it allows an organisation to achieve maximum reach to its customers with the delivery of mobile applications services, powered by COBOL. Deliver these services to iPhone users, Android users, Blackberry users Windows Mobile, and more, without added complexity or risk. With the recent advent and integration of the COBOL language with industry standard tools such as Visual Studio .NET and Eclipse, delivering mobile based services, using COBOL, just became a lot easier!

What Businesses should be aware of when turning Mobile

With the growing popularity of mobile computing, there is certainly an equal growth in risk to the organisation. Many organisations are not yet equipped to handle the growing demand for mobile services for their customers and need to ensure that when bringing their mobile apps to market they are properly tested in the same way as other business apps. What is clear, however, is that the opportunity for business via mobile apps is real and growing. The potential for mobile payment for example is considerable. 2012 is likely to see sizeable growth in mobile transactions with 15 per cent of mobile phone owners at present visiting e-commerce sites from their devices monthly (Experian Simmons).

Furthermore, according to Ernst and Young (2011), mobile money users are expected to total $340m- the equivalent to 5 per cent of global mobile subscribers by 2014. In order to remain competitive in the future, businesses must ensure that their business applications are adapted for mobile use.

The presence of security is required for application extension of course, however by re-using application assets businesses are able to delivery new services to customers much more quickly than starting anew as applications and application transactions do not need to be re-written to adapt to mobile application delivery. Furthermore any potential risks are reduced due to the fact that the data remains on the mainframe in a stable and secure environment. Leveraging models such as this two tier model proposed here, is one approach to risk mitigation. There are others as well that can reduce the potential risk to organizations and mobile users.

It is important to remember however, that just as desktop web browsing market has matured over the last fifteen years, so will mobile computing. In the very near term, we will continue to see new security focus on the mobile market, including new mobile-based security software and practices to enable a secure and stable mobile computing experience. The B2B space will continue to mature here as technologies improve.

COBOL based applications are in a unique position today. Organizations can securely deliver COBOL-driven, business data to a mobile device, while managing cost and risk. For many existing (and more modern) enterprise applications, this option is not available. With proper security practices in place and rigorous application performance testing, organizations can ensure that their mobile apps perform at a comparable level to websites, simulating mobile usage challenges in the same way that they can for their website.

Ed Airey is Product Marketing Director at Micro Focus