“Modernization” and “legacy” are two of the most used and abused terms in the tech industry.
How so? On the upside, they accurately, if simplistically, describe the technical and market dynamics of a forward-focused industry that is quick to develop innovations and products designed to enhance performance and user experience.
But on the downside, the terms reflect the industry’s longstanding obsession with building, marketing and profiting from new products to the point of claiming, often without evidence, that they are superior to solutions already residing in client data centers.
Most important, they continually enhance existing solutions and platforms to ensure that they remain relevant to the needs of modern enterprises. IBM’s new watsonx Code Assistant for Z is a good example of one such effort.
Modernization vs. Legacy Hype
That “new” doesn’t automatically translate to “better” is a bit of practical wisdom that is seldom, if ever, seen in tech industry ad copy. Instead, vendors tend to hype shiny new things—claiming the innate superiority of this year’s gear over previous generation systems and platforms.
Certainly, new or next gen CPUs, storage media, interconnects and other technologies typically deliver better and/or more efficient performance. However, the value of ripping out existing or older systems and replacing them with new hardware is usually vastly overrated, often resembling a case of “fixing what isn’t broken.” The process is also expensive for customers, sometimes hugely so, due to costs related to system integration, software upgrades and retraining and certifying IT personnel.
In addition, generational shifts can make it increasingly difficult for businesses to find new system administrators, developers and technicians as existing staff members age-out. As is true in most other industries, younger workers typically prefer to explore and use new and emerging technologies.
That is a scenario that IBM plans to mitigate and avoid with its new watsonx Code Assistant for Z.
What is it? According to the company, the new solution is a generative AI-assisted product that is designed to enable faster translation of COBOL to Java on IBM Z, thus saving developers time and enhancing their productivity. It also joins IBM watsonx Code Assistant for Red Hat Ansible Lightspeed (scheduled for release later this year) in the watsonx Code Assistant product family.
Both solutions leverage IBM’s watsonx.ai code model, which the company says will employ knowledge of 115 coding languages learned from 1.5 trillion tokens. According to IBM, at 20 billion parameters, the watsonx.ai code model will be one of the largest generative AI foundation models for computer code automation.
Why is this important? First, because of the sheer pervasiveness of COBOL. Enterprise developers and software engineers have written hundreds of billions of lines of COBOL code. Plus, due to its notable flexibility and reliability, COBOL is still widely used, reportedly supporting some $3 trillion in daily financial transactions. In other words, COBOL is literally “business critical” to tens of thousands of large enterprises, millions of smaller companies and billions of consumers.
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COBOL Meets Watsonx Code Assistant for Z
Despite its vital position in transaction processing, COBOL is hardly a favorite among young computer professionals. Though COBOL and other mainframe programmers earn premium salaries (according to IBM, some 20-30 percent more than their peers), employers struggle to fill available positions.
That’s where IBM’s watsonx Code Assistant for Z comes in. The company notes that the new solution is designed to make it easier for developers to selectively choose and evolve COBOL business services into well architected, high-quality Java code.
Plus, IBM believes watsonx generative AI can enable developers to quickly assess, update, validate and test the right code, allowing them to efficiently modernize even large scale applications.
The Java on Z code resulting from watsonx Code Assistant for Z will be object-oriented and is designed to be performance-optimized versus comparable x86 platforms. IBM is designing the solution to be interoperable with the rest of the COBOL application family, as well as with CICS, IMS, DB2 and other z/OS runtimes. Lastly, IBM Consulting’s deep domain expertise in IBM Z application modernization makes it a prime resource for clients in key industries such as banking, insurance, healthcare and government.
Though marketing professionals may feel comfortable with portraying modern and legacy technologies as a simplistic “new vs. old” conundrum, business owners, IT management and knowledgeable staff, including developers, understand the complexities of the modern/legacy dynamic. Rather than age, the larger issue is relevance: why an organization began employing a particular technology and how or whether that solution remains relevant to its owner’s needs.
It is not unlike how people and organizations remain relevant. Industries, companies, markets and larger economies are in a constant state of evolution. People and organizations succeed by adapting to those changes, by learning new skills, exploring new opportunities, and remaining vitally relevant to customers and partners. IBM’s new watsonx Code Assistant for Z demonstrates that what is true for people can also be true for information technologies.
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