Netron helps tame the Cobol beast

If sorting through a few million lines of Cobol code isn’t your idea of a good time, you’ll be happy that Toronto-based Netron Inc. agrees with you.

Figuring developers have better things to do with their time, Netron is offering Netron HotRod – software that automatically detects duplicate Cobol code and seeks out business rules.

HotRod differs from its competitors in that it can find business rules without having to know the location beforehand, according to Netron. It also ranks each section of code by how closely it resembles typical business rules.

With an estimated 200 billion lines of code in use around the world, only five per cent of which comprise business rules, developers desperately need a tool to help get a handle on their code inventory, according to Netron.

Peter Ruttan, executive vice-president with Netron in Toronto, said the problem of poorly understood code is common. “Many organizations have old systems. They don’t have documentation at all, or if they do have documentation, it’s out of date.”

Using a Merant’s Revolve parsing engine – a pre-requisite for running HotRod – the software automatically classifies code and generates a report. HotRod can be used to seek out common code, or rank code against a business rule stereotype.

Ruttan said tools like HotRod free up IS resources, as analysts no longer have to endure two to there month long code reviews – a process that’s often filled with errors to begin with, he added. According to Netron, HotRod can accurately search through one million lines of code in as little as 15 minutes.

Because many Cobol programs were written almost a generation ago, the chances that a program’s author is still around are slim. That has forced IS departments to make adjustments on the fly, Ruttan said. .

“Most of that code has passed through quite a few hands over the years…but in that time it has passed through the hands of five to 20 people, each of them trying to do maintenance or do a quick fix,” he said. The result is duplicate sets of code performing the same task, as well as poor overall inventory.

One user said she was resigned to building Cobol search software in-house before learning the HotRod beta was available. “Our number one thing wasn’t the business rules, it was the highlighting of what’s redundant,” said Terry MacLeod, manager of common business function at the Royal Bank Financial Group in Toronto. “What we want to do is really reduce the size of our code base…for all our existing systems.”

MacLeod, whose team is part of a company-wide effort to trim $400 million from Royal Bank’s overall expenses, is still struggling with duplicate code on her back-end systems – the result of a corporate merger completed a few years ago. “Part of the [problem] is in some situations people aren’t even around that understand how some of our old applications work, so just pulling out the business rules is helpful in some situations.”

She hopes HotRod will eradicate useless code and help her department save money at the same time. But with her staff still learning how to use the tool, MacLeod said it’s too early to comment on its effectiveness.

Though HotRod contains a cutting-edge “chunking” or code analysis tool, it still lacks one crucial piece, said Jim Sinur, vice-president of application development and management with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc.

“HotRod has no output — no output except reports. So there’s no transformation process. It’s purely advisory. And that’s its weakness,” he said. “They need to mature the output side, but they do have some pretty cool stuff.” In particular, Sinur said the Merant parsing engine is well-regarded in the industry.

He also expects the market for tools like HotRod to heat up fast, as organizations, already chastened by year 2000 and Euro experiences, get their Cobol code ready for the demands of e-business.

“This is a little bit harder work, and has some risks to it,” Sinur added. “Anytime you go in to change a program you’ve got to retest the sucker. Talk to people that are doing Y2K, and ask them what their biggest nightmare is.”

Netron Hot Rod runs on Windows NT 4.0 or higher, and assumes the installation of Merant Revolve 4.1.08 or higher. HotRod is available on a per-server price of $35,000. However, Netron is also offering leases on a per-project basis.

Netron in Toronto is at (416) 636-8333.