Any way to explore cobol and cics without access to a mainframe?

With the recent covid/legacy support surge of interest in bringing potential developers into Cobol, can anyone share here any ways that one might explore/get started/work with it–especially with CICS–if they have no access to a mainframe and a supported IBM OS?

Are there any available virtualization or container solutions that one could implement locally, preferably for free? Or any free online playgrounds? or if nothing else, low-cost online remote access?

It really won’t do much good to have people “learning” cobol merely as a language, without also learning all that typically goes with it on a typical IBM mainframe, from the OS to the tools, etc. But without ways to emulate or experience all that, remotely, it seems it will be very difficult helping people seriously consider the possibilities of how they might contribe.


Host access is the best option you have. It was always hard to find good emulators for the PC and projects never stayed active for long. Hercules Emulator could be a start. If you never had contact with the host before, it will probably be hard to understand and learn - the whole concept is related to how IT used to work back then (read ‘punch cards’ and ‘tapes’). It feels like stone age compared to what you are offered with Unix (Linux) systems in the cloud today.

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I appreciate your response, though I hope others may offer thoughts, to perhaps counter that “host access is the best option”. The problem with that is of course it’s NO option for someone who has no such access, yet may be wanting to train up (or retrain from years of experience in the distant past) to help out in the crisis.

I do appreciate that emulators have a checkered past. And even that Hercules one, while compelling on the surface, may lead many to stumble. It starts out as only a command line and requires one to get a 3270 emulator (some of which are free, some paid), but so many links (on that site and those of 3270 emulators) are often dead or quite old. Then there’s a challenge as to which specific mainframe OS versions are supported by Hercules for free vs requiring an IBM license.

Time will tell if someone is motivated to bring things together and update them to help those considering this transition (to help out with older mainframe apps).

BTW, you refer to "how IT used to work back then (read ‘punch cards’ and ‘tapes’). Well, that is how it was prior to the early/mid-80’s, but by then many mainframe apps had started transitioning to being more “online”, via CICS (which is why I mentioned that in my title and original post).

And CICS application processing is a lot closer to web app development than many might appreciate. I can, having done sysadmin work for 15 years in that mainframe world before 20+ doing it in the web app dev world.

But sure, there would be a huge mindshift needed for anyone coming from modern development.

Again I’m just trying here to spark conversation to facilitate any who may want to consider it, with respect to how they may possibly go about it, short of working directly for an agency and being given access to a server–if that’s possible. Sounds like some combination of Hercules and tn3270 apps is a start, but I sense there is a lot more that may need to be done to facilitate folks getting started, lest many fall off the horse before even getting out of the barn.

Computer Associates had a product called CA-Realia. It can be install on PC back in the day(1985-1995). I don’t know if it works on Windows platform. I used it back in the day. You can develop and test COBOL code on the PC then pass to a IBM 360. We never used it that way, we just ran on PCs(PCDOS/MSDOS) thru 1995. It generated compiled machine code and at the time beat the bits off C. I don’t know if CA even exists today. It may be worth while to resurrect for remote coding and training.

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6 years ago I used RDz ( Rational Application Development z System )+DB2 for Windows +TX Series for Windows ( Similar to TX Series for AIX ) .
RDz is an Eclipse framework with COBOL, smart editor and debug.
IBM extend RDz to a z/OS under Linux that allows editing, compiling and executing with debug in a graphic mode with CICS and DB2 for z/OS.
IBM’s goal is to create a rapid Development environment out of mainframe saving MIPS.

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In addition to CA-Realia, Microfocus Mainframe Express was a nice platform for rapid development

RDz seems compelling. I am finding that there’s a 90-day free trial, and installers for various OS’s including Windows. More at I have not tried it yet. Just sharing that for other readers.

Thanks to you and others sharing thoughts here. Hoping it may lead to some good options for folks considering things currently.

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Micro Focus COBOL Personal Edition (free after registration for 1 year with license key):

Raincode COBOL Personal Edition (free after registration):

I believe both require Visual Studio as the IDE(free after registration):


Wow, great stuff, Tim. Thanks for sharing.

So first, on the MicroFocus Personal edition, that one year free is indeed awesome. I don’t find the site to make any mention of CICS (or JCL), so it seems perhaps the tool is focused SOLELY on Cobol, which isn’t a bad thing, just not quite all that some may need. (BTW, it offers options both for integration with Visual Studio and Eclipse, whichever folks may prefer.)

But very cool about Raincode. That DOES indeed indicate that it supports CICS ( and JCL (, to name a couple of things, and even transforms DB2 SQL to run on SQL Server. And again AWESOME that it’s free, too!

As before, I have only read about these, not yet installed them. But now we’re really starting to crank up the heat on possible ways that folks new to (or renewing interest in) Cobol and CICS can get started doing development without access to a mainframe.

I am hopeful there may well be still other options, but I hope folks interested may find this, take the ball and run with it. :slight_smile:


I suggest you look at Heirloom Computing, really solid platform that I’ve used on several migrations!

If you’re just looking for COBOL, I’d go with gnuCOBOL.



Microfocus COBOL is a good product. Lots of material to learn. Good luck.

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Bank of Brazil uses RDz

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Master the Mainframe. The real thing, from IBM. Especially if you are learning…


Andy, thanks for that. Wow, that’s awesome.

For those who haven’t yet checked it out, it’s a free program from IBM, and anyone can signup (there is a separate aspect of it that is suited to students, but anyone can sign up for the main program).

When I refer to it as “program”, I don’t mean an “app”. I mean it’s quite a complete introduction, comprised of many parts. You’ll be given an account on a real system, and the program then offers detailed instructions for getting started (broken into several steps). It starts with walking someone through the process of first logging into and using TSO and getting around ISPF–even having you dip into Unix briefly.

By accomplishing steps (which include brief youtube videos and a quiz at the end of each step), you progress through the program. There are badges you can achieve, and even a talent match program to connect employers to successful participants.

While the TSO steps (and instructions) will seem clunky to modern developers, the point is that it will give you real experience working on such a real system (including sometimes tedious old-school instructions, which a newcomer may as well get used to, also!)

I didn’t proceed past the first section before writing this, but I see from digging into the menus that eventually Cobol is covered, as is use of Java and C as well! and even Linux. And of course many other traditional mainframe topics are covered, like jcl, rexx, vsam, db2, and more. So it’s a pretty complete introduction, though sadly, no coverage (not even a mention) of CICS. But I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

It’s indeed a great place for someone to start, so again, thanks for sharing it, Andy. Hope it may benefit others following along here.


Tom, thanks. Certainly the gnucobol reference may benefit some, as it’s a Cobol compiler that works on workstations (Windows, Linux, and MacOS). That will indeed let them experience Cobol, without access to a mainframe, but of course it doesn’t really give any experience OF a mainframe (let alone CICS), but it’s a good option to know about, so I appreciate hearing of it.

As for heirloom, since that’s a tool for migrating Cobol to Java, I’m not quite sure how that really addresses the original question. :slight_smile: Still, it may benefit some to learn that there’s that option if they want to move AWAY from Cobol, especially in that you say it’s been helpful for you.

And knowing of it as an option may help folks who are getting started, in case they may want to propose it to organizations they might work with. That said, folks in that position should be aware that migration tools have existed for years (decades) and often have NOT worked out well, so do tread carefully in suggesting it to your org, if you’re a newcomer there. :slight_smile:

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Thanks for posting this question @Carehart, I have never worked with Cobol before so it’s really helping me to work through the replies.

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I use GNU Cobol on Linux and gave a short introductory workshops on it in 2016.

Slides from workshop

Command summary


@Carehart Thanks for raising those questions. Those were the same thoughts on my mind. It’s been many years since my IBM mainframe COBOL days and I was wondering how I was ever going to get the dust off. :grin:
Tim - Thanks for those links. I’ll be checking them out right away. I’m open to any other tips on jogging my programmer memories as I’d love to help with this.

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I’m using gnu-cobol on FreeBSD. Will get to hercules in time.

% pkg install vim git gmake gnu-cobol hercules

As for the OP, why wait until you have a full setup? Learn COBOL on commodity platforms, and then learn its native habitat.

One thing at a time.

PS: Thanks for the workshop resources!

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Payter, I am not saying people should “wait”. I am simply saying that anyone who wants to help out with interactive Cobol apps running CICS, they really will need to experience THAT beyond “just learning cobol”.

And so I was merely ASKING folks to share any thoughts on options that may exist. Thankfully, there have been many such suggestions.

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