IBM Teases Watsonx Generative AI Tool That Translates COBOL To Java

“We expect for partners of all types to have a role to play,” IBM VP Keri Olson told CRN.


IBM plans to preview its upcoming Watsonx Code Assistant for Z generative artificial intelligence-assisted offering in September, which, once it’s generally available, will give solution providers a way to quickly translate customers’ COBOL code on IBM Z into Java to modernize applications.

Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM will preview the generative AI offering during its IBM TechXchange event in Las Vegas, which runs Sept. 11 to Sept. 13. Code Assistant for Z should become generally available during the fourth quarter of 2023, according to an IBM statement.

When asked by CRN during a press conference about whether services-led IBM partners are key to bringing Code Assistant for Z to market, Keri Olson, IBM automation vice president, said, “We expect for partners of all types to have a role to play as we roll out this solution” – including system integrators, value-added resellers, independent software vendors [ISVs] and hyperscalers such as Microsoft and Amazon Web Services [AWS].

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“Integrators will likely provide services to help clients figure out the best fit for purpose strategy for their purposes,” Olson said. “Resellers and distributors will also be able to sell Watsonx Code Assistant for IBM Z. So there are all kinds of opportunities for partners.”

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IBM COBOL To Java Code Translation

Bo Gebbie, CEO of IBM solution provider Evolving Solutions, No. 135 on CRN’s 2023 Solution Provider 500, told CRN in a recent interview that he is interested in seeing how IBM’s AI offerings benefit the security and infrastructure business, which have been in demand for Gebbie’s company lately.

Customers have asked Gebbie’s team about using generative AI tools such as ChatGPT—made by Microsoft-backed OpenAI—and automating tasks related to human resources, Gebbie said.

“If IBM can help bridge the gap between how we make meaningful use cases and we can make money at it helping clients, I think that’s the part we’ve got to do some more homework on,” he said. “The reason I’m excited and interested to learn more is we know there’s a skills gap and shortages with skilled employees still. [We need to learn] how does this help make certain tasks less labor-intensive so that we can redeploy the right people for the harder tasks and harder work?”

During the Code Assistant for Z press conference, Kyle Charlet, chief technology officer for IBM Z software, told CRN that the refactoring phase of this app modernization will present an opportunity to bring in services engagements to “look and understand what and how the application is making things happen. And then pull, extract these things out into that service.”

Also, because the transformation phase is AI assisted, that will present “a huge opportunity … for services to help with this AI system approach and really augment it,” Charlet said.

Skyla Loomis, vice president of IBM Z software, told CRN during the press conference that Code Assistant for Z should also help solution providers advance customer adoption of development operations (DevOps) and agile practices.

“All of these capabilities really will be accelerated and underpinned by a DevOps and agile approach,” Loomis said. “So many of our clients have been on this journey. Many of our clients still have a ways to go on that journey. And so helping them to build those foundational capabilities around DevOps and good agile development practices will really help them to fully take advantage of these capabilities at scale.”

Watsonx Code Assistant for Z Capabilities

Code Assistant for Z promises to help users manage total cost, complexity and risk with app modernization, according to IBM.

Other IBM Z app modernization approaches include rewriting all code to Java or migrating to a public cloud, which could sacrifice Z capabilities while failing to reduce costs, according to IBM.

Other tools that promise to convert COBOL apps to Java syntax can make code that’s difficult to maintain and unrecognizable to Java developers, according to IBM.

And currently available AI-assisted partial rewrite technology lacks COBOL support. Plus, it runs the risk of producing suboptimal Java code and even exposing customer intellectual property (IP) to the public.

Although IBM did not name any specific vendors or tools used in IP or data leaks, the generative AI ChatGPT app created by Microsoft-backed OpenAI notably made headlines earlier this year when Samsung employees uploaded sensitive code to the platform. Nvidia likewise made headlines when researchers said they could manipulate the chipmaker’s AI software into revealing private information.

IBM’s Code Assistant for Z promises to produce object-oriented Java code optimized to interoperate with the rest of the COBOL app with the Customer Information Control System (CICS) transaction processing subsystem, Information Management System (IMS) transaction processing database, Db2 transaction and analytics database, plus other z/OS operating system runtimes, according to IBM.

IBM To Expand Use

IBM’s code model will power Code Assistant for Z. That model will become one of the largest generative AI foundation models for code automation at 20 billion parameters, according to the vendor. will also power Ansible Lightspeed with IBM Watsonx Code Assistant, an offering slated for release later this year, according to the vendor. IBM plans to expand to other code conversions, reducing the time-to-value for modernization while helping developers of various skill levels access foundation models.

Watsonx Code Assistant for Z will eventually modernize billions of lines of COBOL code while preserving IBM Z performance, security and resiliency, according to the vendor. COBOL was created in the 1950s and is still used for vital business and operational processes worldwide. Java dates to the 1990s.

Loomis said during the press conference that about 84 percent of IBM’s Z clients run COBOL. About 230-plus billion lines of COBOL code actively run in enterprises across the world.

Code Assistant for Z should also include IBM’s Application Discovery and Delivery Intelligence (ADDI) inventory and analysis tool, according to the vendor. With ADDI, users can refactor business services in COBOL , transform COBOL to Java with the best design and validate the outcome with automated testing capabilities.

CEO Krishna At Think

The upcoming Watsonx Code Assistant offering might bring to mind comments IBM CEO Arvind Krishna made during the vendor’s annual Think conference earlier this year.

When asked about IBM exploring AI for migrations, Krishna said the technology is in the works but “I wouldn’t call them ready for prime time.”

Eventually, IBM will offer ways for customers to convert COBOL and other legacy coding languages into modern languages at a massive scale.

“Will there be AI tools by this time next year that will help in migration of legacy code to modern code? Absolutely,” he said. “Will there be tools that will help you maybe change an encryption algorithm of AES or—heaven forbid—DES? … Absolutely. Will we have tools that can scan all of your code and recommend these are the parts that do need modernization? Absolutely. And we do work on all those.”

DES, or Data Encryption Standard, dates to the 1970s. AES, or Advanced Encryption Standard, dates to the early 2000s.