About COBOL

Yes, COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) is one of oldest programming languages still in use. And COBOL has had such a low profile in recent years that you might be forgiven for thinking that it had all but disappeared[1].

And Yes, COBOL is a procedural language in an object-oriented world. While it's well suited to batch operations, the language isn't as good a fit for developing interactive applications or Web-based front ends. And it has a major image problem. Outside of the mainframe data center, Cobol is viewed today by many Java, Visual Basic and C# programmers as an obsolete and inferior language, a vestige from the dark ages of big iron[2].

But this bad image doesn’t reflect reality and many studies issued during the last decade show the dominance in commercial transactions still based on COBOL code – here some examples:

  • Bill Hinshaw, founder and CEO of Cobol Cowboys, compiled some interesting data
    • COBOL supports close to 90% of Fortune 500 business systems today
    • COBOL is 65% of active code used today; and runs 85% of all business transaction
    • 200 billion lines of COBOL code are still in use today by various industries, according to IBM
    • 71% of universities surveyed are convinced that companies will rely on COBOL for the next decade and more
  • In 2006 and 2012, Computerworld surveys found that over 60% of organizations used COBOL (more than C++ and Visual Basic .NET) and that for half of those, COBOL was used for the majority of their internal software
  • Reuters[3] reported in April 2017 that in the U.S. 43% of the Banking systems and 95% of all ATM swipes are based on COBOL.


COBOL was originally developed in the 1950s as a stop-gap by the U.S. Department of Defense, but then computer manufacturers began supporting it, “resulting in widespread adoption,” according to Wikipedia. Now the Eisenhower-era programming language — based on design work by Grace Hopper — is everywhere[4].
“In the annals of IT, there is a Goliath among programming languages that continues to rewrite the rulebooks on what long-term application value means to IT departments and businesses around the world. This language has surpassed even the greatest expectations of its inventors and manages to consistently surprise and amaze the industry with its longevity and ability to adapt and innovate. With each successive decade, it has reset the IT clock time and remains a critical business technology more than fifty years after its invention. It is COBOL”[5].

Depending on the used sources, most of commercial applications are still based on COBOL – and there are no indications that this will dramatically change in the near future. This application landscape reflects a company’s process landscape and substantial investments in human and financial resources during the previous lifecycle. Re-development can be an expensive and risky project. Modern COBOL compilers and tools provide the same comfortable development and runtime experience compared to Java, Python or others.

While mobile and web technologies often garner everyone’s attention, the reality is that most organizations that have been around for more than 30 years still run their core business processes using systems that were written in COBOL. Anything that makes these apps easier to evolve and extend is a very good thing. The reality is that evolution and extension of these apps is critical to business success. In order for the flashy-new-social-networking-enabled mobile and web Systems of Engagement to succeed, the workhorse Systems of Record and Systems of Operation are going to have to evolve apace. This means that they must take advantage of the latest architectures as well as being refactored and modularized to align with a service delivery model[6].

 

Summary

Unfortunately, the leaders of the computer science community have taken a very negative view of COBOL from its very inception and therefore have not looked carefully enough to see what good ideas are in there which could be further enlarged, expanded or generalized.

Jean Sammet, “The Early History of COBOL”, ACM Sigplan Notices 13(8), August 1978

The problem with being such an old language is that COBOL suffers from 50 years of accumulated opprobrium. Criticism of COBOL is often based written 30 to 50 years ago.

[1]Michael Coughlan, Beginning COBOL for Programmers, Apress, 2014
[2] https://www.computerworld.com/article/2554103/app-development/cobol--not-dead-yet.html
[3] http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/USA-BANKS-COBOL/010040KH18J/index.html
[4] https://thenewstack.io/cobol-everywhere-will-maintain/
[5]Visual COBOL, A Developer’s Guide to Modern COBOL, MicroFocus 2017
[6] https://go.forrester.com/blogs/13-05-03-cobol_application_development_still_not_dead_yet/

 

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