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IBM brings GenAI capabilities to watsonx for app modernisation
Fri, 25th Aug 2023

IBM has announced watsonx Code Assistant for Z, a new generative AI-assisted product that will help enable faster translation of COBOL to Java on IBM Z and enhances developer productivity on the platform.

This product will be generally available in Q4 2023, and is being designed to help accelerate COBOL application modernisation. Watsonx Code Assistant for Z will preview during TechXchange, IBM's premier technical learning event in Las Vegas, Sept 11-13. 

Watsonx Code Assistant for Z is a new addition to the watsonx Code Assistant product family, along with IBM watsonx Code Assistant for Red Hat Ansible Lightspeed, scheduled for release later this year.

These solutions will be powered by IBM's code model, which will have knowledge of 115 coding languages having learned from 1.5 trillion tokens. At 20 billion parameters, it is on target to become one of the largest generative AI foundation models for code automation.

The watsonx Code Assistant product portfolio will extend over time to address other programming languages, to improve time to value for modernisation and address growing skills challenges for developers.

Watsonx Code Assistant for Z is being designed to assist businesses in leveraging generative AI and automated tooling to accelerate their mainframe application modernisation all with the goal of preserving the performance, security and resiliency capabilities of IBM Z. 

The COBOL data processing language supports business and operational processes at organisations globally. At scale, using watsonx Code Assistant for Z in comparison to other approaches could make it easier for developers to selectively and incrementally transform COBOL business services into well architected high-quality Java code with estimated billions of lines of COBOL code as potential candidates for targeted modernisation over time, the company states.

Generative AI can help developers to more quickly assess, update, validate and test the right code, allowing them to more efficiently modernise large applications and focus on higher impact tasks.

IBM is designing these capabilities to provide tooling for each step of the modernisation journey. The solution is expected to include IBMs Application Discovery and Delivery Intelligence (ADDI) inventory and analysis tool.

Following ADDI, key steps on the journey include refactoring business services in COBOL, transforming COBOL code to Java code with an optimised design, and validating the resulting outcome, including using automated testing capabilities. Potential benefits for clients include: 

Accelerating code development and increasing developer productivity throughout the application modernisation lifecycle Managing total cost, complexity, and risk of application modernisation initiatives, including translation and optimisation of code in-place on IBM Z Expanding access to a broader pool of IT skills and accelerating developer onboarding Achieving high quality, easy to maintain code through model customisation and the application of best practices

AI-assisted mainframe application modernisation is an imperative

According to new research from the IBM Institute for Business Value, organisations are 12x more likely to leverage existing mainframe assets rather than rebuild their application estates from scratch in the next two years. At the same time, however, the study shows that the number one challenge for those same organisations is a lack of resources and skills.

Kareem Yusuf, PhD, Senior Vice President, Product Management and Growth, IBM Software, says, "By bringing generative AI capabilities through watsonx to new use cases, we plan to drive real progress for our clients. IBM is engineering watsonx Code Assistant for Z to take a targeted and optimised approach."

"It's built to rapidly and accurately convert code optimised for IBM Z, accelerate time to market and broaden the skills pool. This can help enhance applications and add new capabilities while preserving the performance, resiliency, and security inherent in IBM Z."

There are many application modernisation approaches available today. Some options include rewriting all application code in Java, or migrating everything to public cloud, which may sacrifice capabilities that are core to the IBM Z value proposition while failing to deliver on expected cost reduction.

Tools that convert COBOL applications to Java syntax can produce code that is hard to maintain and can be unrecognisable to a Java developer. Generative AI is promising, but current AI-assisted partial re-write technology lacks COBOL support and doesnt optimise the resulting Java code for the given task.

The resulting Java code from watsonx Code Assistant for Z will be object-oriented. IBM is designing this solution to be optimised to interoperate with the rest of the COBOL application, with CICS, IMS, DB2, and other z/OS runtimes. Java on Z is designed to be performance-optimised versus a compared x86 platform.

Building on a foundation of governance and innovation

According to a 2023 Gartner report, by 2028, the combination of humans and AI assistants working in tandem could reduce the time to complete coding tasks by 30%. The report further states that the use of AI code generation tools is not replacing the quality assurance (QA) processes and security controls that are needed by developers for robust and secure product development, as well as for mitigation of inherited risks from using generative methods for code.

Protecting sensitive data and customer intellectual property are critical when it comes to implementing generative AI, according to IBM. The company follows core principles, grounded in Trust and Transparency. With this principle-based approach, the watsonx platform aims to enable enterprises to leverage their own trusted data and IP to build tailored AI solutions that are scalable across operations, IBM states.

Additionally, IBM Consulting brings domain expertise in IBM Z application modernisation with a focus on guiding clients that leverage the platform across key industries such as banking, insurance, healthcare and government. These dedicated consultants can help clients identify the right application areas to modernise in order to optimise the potential benefits of watsonx Code Assistant for Z.