Micro Focus should be delighted with the first day of their 2012 Developer’s Conference. The management message was, “we’re back focusing on COBOL – Visual COBOL above all, but also we’re not going to abandon our ACU and RM users”, and there was a palpable sense of relief on the part of the delegates. Attendees were not easily distracted with exciting visions of the future (Jack Shaw’s keynote) or my less exciting analysis of the challenges to developers right now. As the day wore on, I realised that they knew all about the challenges that they faced and those were a lot more basic than I had imagined.

My theme was the need to modernize both enterprise IT and also application delivery tools and methods. I had gone on at some length about the need to handle both waterfall and agile development processes. Two delegates asked me later at lunch, “what’s waterfall and what’s agile?” They weren’t being coy or facetious. Like most of the delegates at the conference, I learned, they’ve been doing their jobs for a long time and all the debate about development processes was simply irrelevant. What was interesting to them, and what was interesting about them, was that they knew they need modernize their application, they were in the process of doing it, incrementally like any sensible organization should, and best of all for Micro Focus, they were delighted to find Visual COBOL actually works for them – works well for them.

In the afternoon, we heard more truly convincing modernization stories, but they were not what you might think. You might expect to hear stories of users updating their mainframe systems with sexy front ends on tablets and telephones, but you’d be wrong. One story was of moving a largely terminal-interfaced system into Microsoft Azure using Visual COBOL to replicate everything from JCL and CICS to local printing. Superficially it was a very modern Cloud tale, but at its heart it was really a pure old-fashioned application platform conversion. Nothing wrong with that. To the contrary, the benefits in economic terms were stunning and completely credible.

In another talk, we heard about an organization simply trying to get an ordinary web-based interface onto its client-server application. It had plodded along for years with tools that half did the job – worked in Internet Explorer only, or used thin client technology outside a browser that required delicate surgery on customers’ firewalls. Now Micro Focus has a solution, Xcentrisity BIS, that can get them into web services and they can see a strategic way forward with Visual COBOL.

Web services, you cry. But wait a minute that’s a technology on the wane. We’re ready for RESTful services.

Well, yes, if you weren’t starting from here. These stalwarts of COBOL have lived for a very long time with tools that kept their applications going but not much more. It has been the right strategy for them because contrary to common wisdom, their users actually like the applications they have, command lines and all. But they can also see that it is getting harder to live with these applications in a modernizing world. And if there is a workable path to allow them to take advantage of environments like Visual Studio and Eclipse, and frameworks like .NET and JVM, then they’re ready to get on with it. To be clear though, we’re talking about bringing systems on Web 0.5 or less (if you get the idea) into Web 2.0, so up-to-date, but not cutting edge end-user engagement. We’re talking about using AJAX at the front end, not tablets and mobiles.

The important thing for Micro Focus is that the Visual COBOL message seems to be getting through to its customers. It’s a product that delivers on its promise well enough that loyal COBOL users feel safe enough taking a leap into what is for many of them completely unknown territory. The safety is not only technical, but by bringing COBOL in from the cold and giving it a future alongside all the other VS and Eclipse supported languages, Visual COBOL seems absolutely safe strategically. And that’s important to these essentially conservative guardians of some bedrock enterprise IT assets.