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Moving 600 developers off the mainframe

Micro Focus eased an army of in house COBOL programmers off of the mainframe and onto Windows while maintaining the legacy APS language at Blue Cross Blue Shield South Carolina. The company is also in the process of refining its SOA vision.

Mainframe development doesn't have to be painful according to Rockville, Md.-based Micro Focus. The legacy platform development and deployment company recently helped Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina (BCBSSC) move its 20 year investment in Micro Focus' APS development platform off the mainframe and onto Windows.

The move is due to Micro Focus reorganizing its app development suite to use what it considers the best development tools from Microsoft.

But while Micro Focus prefers Windows for development, it doesn't necessarily translate into Windows for deployment. The newest version of APS allows PC-based development to be deployed in COBOL on the mainframe as well as the other major platforms. BCBSSC is maintaining its mainframe for production.

Keith Wild, director of internal resource management at BCBSSC, is responsible for supporting the organization's internal development team. According to Wild, BCBSSC has millions of lines of code in APS-based applications and 600 programmers trained in the language.

"The main reason [to move off the mainframe for development] is because it's the direction Micro Focus has taken us," Wild said. "The thrust of the movement is staying with APS and Micro Focus. We'll end up with a more modern platform for our developers, but they'll still develop on the same structure. It's the same language."

According to Derek Britton, a project manager at Micro Focus that worked closely with BCBSSC, a lot of the organization's success at churning out COBOL applications quickly is due to the efficacy of the APS environment.

Britton said the APS product is more productive on the PC because of the rapid test cycle and user friendliness. Plus, if organizations aren't using the mainframe for development it frees up MIPs for deployment, playing to the strength of the mainframe.

And with a 20 years of app development, BCBSSC needed to embrace its investment in APS and make the move.

According to Mike Gilbert, vice president of Worldwide Marketing at Micro Focus, the reorganization and switch to Windows-based development was a long time coming.

"Up until April 2005, Micro Focus had an eclectic collection of products which had grown over a period of years," Gilbert said. "We had built these various products to address specific customer needs, but customers didn't see the boundaries in the same way we did. So we aggregated out products under two umbrellas: Studio and Server."

Studio is the development arm of Micro Focus and Server is the deployment.

Gilbert said organizations that develop a lot of homegrown apps need great development tools that can be deployed on any platform. Micro Focus made the commitment to Microsoft's development tools, such as Visual Studio because it provided the best tools for the job and Micro Focus' goal was to offer COBOL developers the same tools.

Micro Focus is also helping BCBSSC refine its SOA vision as well. And though the mainframe is still its deployment platform of choice, using an SOA will help them look at other options and extend legacy applications.

According to Wild, BCBSSC has had a lot of Web services experience from very early on. As an insurance company, BCBSSC has to provide access to core data for claims and deductibles. That means giving customers access externally over the Web and delivering data to customer service representatives' desktops internally.

"Behind the scenes, we've always had connections to our mainframe systems," Wild said.

Wild uses Micro Focus' component generator to build Web services. He had been using older software, a screen scraping technology similar to IBM's HATS.

The ability to revisit, rewrite and reuse applications is very important in the insurance business where requirements are always changing. According to Wild, his team is constantly in upgrade mode with a system cycle that uses old and new code.

"We're doing a review of current Web services to see what we can combine and refine what we do. But that's more business analysis than software. We are typically business driven, so we make decisions based on business functionality, not technology," Wild said. "Our current services are very valid and successful and now we're taking another look at them. But we feel like we've had an SOA for years."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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