In comes Java — do you retrain or replace?

For many companies that currently rely on older programming languages like Cobol but want to move into the Internet age with Java, the question is whether retraining Cobol programmers will do the job.

The Home Depot Inc. in Atlanta, which has adopted Java heavily, has moved a small army of Cobol and other procedural language programmers to Java. But the company has found that it takes on average four months for them to become productive with the new language and about nine months to become truly proficient, said application development manager Kathy Tadlock. Still, they often have a strong knowledge of enterprise application requirements such as data processing and scalability and integration to existing applications, she said.

The problem is that old Cobol or Report Program Generator (RPG) languages are procedural — designed for monolithic applications, not the modular, multitier applications used on distributed networks like the Internet.

The leap from mainframe to intranet programming is so great that few procedural programmers will be able to reinvent their thinking well enough to succeed in Java, said experts, including analyst Sally Cusack at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.

The potential migration to Java sent a wave of emotions over the 25 RPG programmers at Australia New Zealand Direct Line, a subsidiary of freight conglomerate CP Ships Ltd. in London, said project leader Ryan Peterson. When told about the move, their jaws dropped with worry, but that lasted only until they were told that they would keep their jobs and be trained to do Java work. “The dropped jaws changed to instant grins,” Peterson said.

Rather than training masses of programmers, the best route to migrating mainframe applications to platforms using Java could be a combination of consultants, newly hired Java programmers and tools that bridge legacy code to modern infrastructures, Cusack said.

That approach may be the one Wakefern Food Corp. in Edison, N.J. ultimately pursues. The East Coast grocery distributor is considering moving a merchandise catalogue from its mainframe to the Web, said senior programmer Robert Coates. It will use either Java or one of several available tools that allow legacy code to operate on client/server and intranet networks.

To develop a pilot, the company is looking to Java consultants to mentor in-house Cobol developers. If Wakefern chooses Java, it could add Java programmers as it teaches Java to more of its Cobol staff.