Offshoring company looks to make programmers obsolete

One of India’s biggest offshoring players has launched software it promises will make programmers all but unnecessary in converting legacy applications to modern programming languages.

Mahindra British Telecom Ltd. (MBT) said on Thursday it is putting the finishing touches on software that almost completely automates the process of converting legacy applications written in languages such as Cobol, Pascal, Delphi and Smalltalk to modern languages such as C, C++ and Java.

The Mumbai-based company is a joint venture between Indian technology group Mahindra & Mahindra and U.K. telco BT Group PLC. It has development centers in the U.K. and India and specializes in applications outsourcing and offshoring for the telecoms industry.

Such a system would be a godsend to the many companies still lumbered with software from the 1970s and 1980s, which has to be maintained by specialized staff familiar with the legacy systems. MBT cited Gartner Group figures estimating that 70 per cent of all business and commercial applications are based on Cobol.

Conversion can currently require armies of programmers and man man-years of time; MBT claims its automated system reduces the human factor by 90 per cent, and ensures “zero-error” quality. All this is possible because any programming language can be abstracted to a few fundamental principles, MBT said.

MBT’s application will not eliminate the need for programmers entirely, but will reduce the numbers needed, saving businesses time and money, according to Richard Kunze, sales director for MBT’s Dusseldorf branch. “You would still need a few programmers to test the software and work with MBT in the case of any problems,” he said.

The company said it carried out an automated conversion for a Scandinavian telco in six months, for a project that ordinarily would have taken 75 man-years. The automated conversion took less than a day, with the rest of the time devoted to tweaks by a small team of ten specialists, MBT said.

So is it just a matter of time before all software is generated automatically from sales executives’ PowerPoint presentations? Not necessarily, say industry observers. In theory automated conversion is feasible, but in practical terms the code produced is so bloated as to be useless, according to Dr John Harvey, lecturer in computing science at the University of East Anglia.

“This type of technology has been around for years, and it is only any good if, for example, the Java produced is quick and usable,” Dr Harvey said. “It could be unstructured garbage which is impossible to maintain and slow.”

MBT’s Kunze responded that tidying up the converted code was a routine matter, and needed a fraction of the staff and man-hours of a manual conversion.

The system is designed to convert one procedural language to another, for example Cobol to C — or one object-oriented language to another — for example Delphi to C++. Converting from one paradigm to the other can only be semi-automated, MBT said.

MBT said the converter had completed initial trials but didn’t give a launch date.

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