IBM uses generative AI to modernise mainframe Cobol

IBM is developing a generative artificial intelligence (AI)-assisted software development tool to help its customers modernise legacy Cobol applications, The new tool, watsonx Code Assistant for Z, uses IBM’s watsonx.ai code model, based on 20 billion parameters, to help developers translate Cobol to Java on IBM Z.

Research from the IBM Institute for Business Value found that nearly seven in 10 IT executives consider mainframe-based applications as central to their business and technology strategies. The April 2023 survey of 200 IT executives in North America, run in conjunction with Oxford Economics, found that 68% of respondents saw mainframe systems as central to their hybrid cloud strategy.

The study reported that organisations are 12 times more likely to leverage existing mainframe assets rather than rebuild their application estates from scratch in the next two years. But organisations are facing a host of challenges. Almost 70% of executives surveyed reported that the mainframe-based applications in their organisations need to be modernised.

Generative AI can help developers quickly assess, update, validate and test the right code more easily, according to IBM, allowing them to more efficiently modernise large applications and focus on higher-impact tasks. IBM claimed watsonx Code Assistant for Z would enable developers to transform Cobol business services into “well-architected high-quality Java code” incrementally.

Fintech Broadridge is one of the software firms looking at the opportunities of using generative AI to modernise legacy Cobol code. “Our collaboration with IBM is an important element in our drive to leverage generative AI interfaces to challenge legacy approaches with material productivity gains, and reinvent our capital markets solutions,” said Roger Burkhardt, CTO for capital markets and AI at Broadridge Financial.

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“We have had excellent client response to our generative AI investments and we are intrigued by the opportunity to further our efforts by leveraging IBM watsonx Code Assistant for Z to address a broader range of platforms,” he added.

The watsonx Code Assistant for Z tool is expected to be used alongside IBM’s Application Discovery and Delivery Intelligence (ADDI) inventory and analysis tool. In terms of how IBM sees the two products being used, the first step involves ADDI, followed by refactoring business services in Cobol, transforming Cobol code to Java code with an optimised design, and validating the resulting outcome, including using automated testing capabilities.

“By bringing generative AI capabilities through watsonx to new use cases, we plan to drive real progress for our clients,” said Kareem Yusuf, senior vice-president for product management and growth at IBM Software. “IBM is engineering watsonx Code Assistant for Z to take a targeted and optimised approach. It’s built to rapidly and accurately convert code optimised for IBM Z, accelerate time to market and broaden the skills pool. This can help enhance applications and add new capabilities, while preserving the performance, resiliency and security inherent in IBM Z.”

Watsonx Code Assistant for Z will be demoed at IBM’s TechXchange technical learning event in Las Vegas, which takes place on 11-13 September 2023.

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