IBM taps AI to translate COBOL code to Java


IBM z16 mainframe computer sitting in the middle of a data center.
Image Credits: IBM

COBOL, or Common Business Oriented Language, is one of the oldest programming languages in use, dating back to around 1959. It’s had surprising staying power; according to a 2022 survey, there’s over 800 billion lines of COBOL in use on production systems, up from an estimated 220 billion in 2017.

But COBOL has a reputation for being a tough-to-navigate, inefficient language. Why not migrate to a newer one? For large organizations, it tends to be a complex and costly proposition, given the small number of COBOL experts in the world. When the Commonwealth Bank of Australia replaced its core COBOL platform in 2012, it took five years and cost over $700 million.

Looking to present a new solution to the problem of modernizing COBOL apps, IBM today unveiled Code Assistant for IBM Z, which uses a code-generating AI model to translate COBOL code into Java. Set to become generally available in Q4 2023, Code Assistant for IBM Z will enter preview during IBM’s TechXchange conference in Las Vegas early this September.

Code Assistant for IBM Z is designed to assist businesses in refactoring their mainframe apps, ideally while preserving performance and security, according to IBM Research chief scientist Ruchir Puri. Running locally in an on-premises configuration or in the cloud as a managed service, Code Assistant is powered by a code-generating model, CodeNet, that can understand not only COBOL and Java but also around 80 different programming languages.

“IBM built a new, state-of-the-art generative AI code model to transform legacy COBOL programs to enterprise Java with a high degree of naturalness in the generated code,” Puri told TechCrunch in an email interview. “In addition to code transformation, Code Assistant supports the complete application modernization life cycle and helps developers understand, refactor, transform and validate the translated code in a modern architecture.”

Puri says that CodeNet, which was trained with 1.5 trillion tokens and has 20 billion parameters, was engineered with a large context window — 32,000 tokens — to “capture the broader context” for “more efficient COBOL to Java transformation.” Parameters are the parts of a model learned from historical training data and essentially define the skill of the model on a problem, such as generating text, while tokens represent raw text (e.g. “fan,” “tas” and “tic” for the word “fantastic”). As for context window, it refers to the text the model considers before generating additional text.

There’s a number of tools, apps and services to convert COBOL apps to Java syntax today, some of which are entirely automated. Puri acknowledges this but makes the case that Code Assistant takes steps to avoid sacrificing COBOL’s capabilities while delivering on reducing costs and producing code that’s easy to maintain — unlike some of the rival offerings on the market.

“IBM built the Code Assistant for IBM Z to be able to mix and match COBOL and Java services,” Puri said. “If the ‘understand’ and ‘refactor’ capabilities of the system recommend that a given sub-service of the application needs to stay in COBOL, it’ll be kept that way, and the other sub-services will be transformed into Java.”

That’s not to suggest that Code Assistant is flawless. A recent Stanford study finds that software engineers who use code-generating AI systems similar to it are more likely to cause vulnerabilities in the apps they develop. Indeed, Puri cautions against deploying code produced by Code Assistant before having it reviewed by human experts.

“Like any AI system, there might be unique usage patterns of an enterprise’s COBOL application that Code Assistant for IBM Z may not have mastered yet,” Puri said. “It’s essential that the code is scanned with state-of-the-art vulnerability scanners to ensure code security.”

Risks aside, IBM no doubt sees tools like Code Assistant as important to its future growth. Today, about 84% of IBM’s mainframe customers run COBOL — mostly customers in the financial and government sectors. And while IBM’s mainframe division is still a large portion of its overall business, the company views the mainframe as a bridge to the expansive, lucrative hybrid computing environments that it also hosts and facilitates.

IBM sees a future in broader code-generating AI tools, as well — intent on competing with apps like GitHub Copilot and Amazon CodeWhisperer. In May, IBM launched fm.model.code within its Watsonx AI service, which powers Watson Code Assistant, allowing developers to generate code using plain English prompts across programs, including Red Hat’s Ansible Lightspeed.

More TechCrunch

Welcome to TechCrunch Fintech! This week, we’re looking at the continued fallout from Synapse’s bankruptcy, how Layer wants to disrupt SMB accounting, and much more! To get a roundup of…

There’s a real appetite for a fintech alternative to QuickBooks

The company is hoping to produce electricity at $13 per megawatt hour, which would be more than 50% cheaper than traditional onshore wind.

Bill Gates-backed wind startup AirLoom is raising $12M, filings reveal

Generative AI makes stuff up. It can be biased. Sometimes, it spits out toxic text. So can it be “safe”? Rick Caccia, the CEO of WitnessAI, believes it can. “Securing…

WitnessAI is building guardrails for generative AI models

It’s not often that you hear about a seed round above $10 million. H, a startup based in Paris and previously known as Holistic AI, has announced a $220 million…

French AI startup H raises $220 million seed round

Hey there, Series A to B startups with $35 million or less in funding — we’ve got an exciting opportunity that’s tailor-made for your growth journey! If you’re looking to…

Boost your startup’s growth with a ScaleUp package at TC Disrupt 2024

TikTok is pulling out all the stops to prevent its impending ban in the United States. Aside from initiating legal challenges against the government, that means shaping up its public…

As a U.S. ban looms, TikTok announces a $1M program for socially driven creators

Microsoft wants to put its Copilot everywhere. It’s only a matter of time before Microsoft renames its annual Build developer conference to Microsoft Copilot. Hopefully, some of those upcoming events…

Microsoft’s Power Automate no-code platform adds AI flows

Build is Microsoft’s largest developer conference and of course, it’s all about AI this year. So it’s no surprise that GitHub’s Copilot, GitHub’s “AI pair programming tool,” is taking center…

GitHub Copilot gets extensions

Microsoft wants to make its brand of generative AI more useful for teams — specifically teams across corporations and large enterprise organizations. This morning at its annual Build dev conference,…

Microsoft intros a Copilot for teams

Microsoft’s big focus at this year’s Build conference is generative AI. And to that end, the tech giant announced a series of updates to its platforms for building generative AI-powered…

Microsoft upgrades its AI app-building platforms

The UK’s data protection watchdog has closed an almost year-long investigation of Snap’s AI chatbot, My AI — saying it’s satisfied the social media firm has addressed concerns about risks…

UK data protection watchdog ends privacy probe of Snap’s GenAI chatbot, but warns industry

U.S. cell carrier Patriot Mobile experienced a data breach that included subscribers’ personal information, including full names, email addresses, home ZIP codes and account PINs, TechCrunch has learned. Patriot Mobile,…

Conservative cell carrier Patriot Mobile hit by data breach

It’s been three years since Spotify acquired live audio startup Betty Labs, and yet the music streaming service isn’t leveraging the technology to its fullest potential — at least not…

Spotify’s ‘Listening Party’ feature falls short of expectations

Alchemist Accelerator has a new pile of AI-forward companies demoing their wares today, if you care to watch, and the program itself is making some international moves into Tokyo and…

Alchemist’s latest batch puts AI to work as accelerator expands to Tokyo, Doha

“Late Pledge” allows campaign creators to continue collecting money even after the campaign has closed.

Kickstarter now lets you pledge after a campaign closes

Stack AI’s co-founders, Antoni Rosinol and Bernardo Aceituno, were PhD students at MIT wrapping up their degrees in 2022 just as large language models were becoming more mainstream. ChatGPT would…

Stack AI wants to make it easier to build AI-fueled workflows

Pinecone, the vector database startup founded by Edo Liberty, the former head of Amazon’s AI Labs, has long been at the forefront of helping businesses augment large language models (LLMs)…

Pinecone launches its serverless vector database out of preview

Young geothermal energy wells can be like budding prodigies, each brimming with potential to outshine their peers. But like people, most decline with age. In California, for example, the amount…

Special mud helps XGS Energy get more power out of geothermal wells

Featured Article

Sonos finally made some headphones

The market play is clear from the outset: The $449 headphones are firmly targeted at an audience that would otherwise be purchasing the Bose QC Ultra or Apple AirPods Max.

5 hours ago
Sonos finally made some headphones

Adobe says the feature is up to the task, regardless of how complex of a background the object is set against.

Adobe brings Firefly AI-powered Generative Remove to Lightroom

All cars suffer when the mercury drops, but electric vehicles suffer more than most as heaters draw more power and batteries charge more slowly as the liquid electrolyte inside thickens.…

Porsche Ventures invests in battery startup South 8 to boost cold-weather EV performance

Scale AI has raised a $1 billion Series F round from a slew of big-name institutional and corporate investors including Amazon and Meta.

Data-labeling startup Scale AI raises $1B as valuation doubles to $13.8B

The new coalition, Tech Against Scams, will work together to find ways to fight back against the tools used by scammers and to better educate the public against financial scams.

Meta, Match, Coinbase and others team up to fight online fraud and crypto scams

It’s a wrap: European Union lawmakers have given the final approval to set up the bloc’s flagship, risk-based regulations for artificial intelligence.

EU Council gives final nod to set up risk-based regulations for AI

London-based fintech Vitesse has closed a $93 million Series C round of funding led by investment giant KKR.

Vitesse, a payments and treasury management platform for insurers, raises $93M to fuel US expansion

Zen Educate, an online marketplace that connects schools with teachers, has raised $37 million in a Series B round of funding. The raise comes amid a growing teacher shortage crisis…

Zen Educate raises $37M and acquires Aquinas Education as it tries to address the teacher shortage

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine.”

Scarlett Johansson says that OpenAI approached her to use her voice

A new self-driving truck — manufactured by Volvo and loaded with autonomous vehicle tech developed by Aurora Innovation — could be on public highways as early as this summer.  The…

Aurora and Volvo unveil self-driving truck designed for a driverless future

The European venture capital firm raised its fourth fund as fund as climate tech “comes of age.”

ETF Partners raises €285M for climate startups that will be effective quickly — not 20 years down the road

Copilot, Microsoft’s brand of generative AI, will soon be far more deeply integrated into the Windows 11 experience.

Microsoft wants to make Windows an AI operating system, launches Copilot+ PCs