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COBOL: A 1959 Idea and 2022 Technology

COBOL, the unassuming technology that has been around since before IT was even a term, is sometimes the subject of a heated state government debate, occasionally makes headlines at industry events, and it was even featured among the top 10 technology topics on an IEEE Twitter poll from 2020. But how did it become a part of the modern zeitgeist? 

COBOL is now into its seventh decade of usage as a global programming language and continues to be hugely important as a system language for great swaths of the global economy. Age aside, COBOL’s defining characteristics include running systems of record applications in worldwide organizations; supporting all sectors vital to the global economy including banking, transportation, government, and healthcare; comprising billions of lines of application code worldwide; and remaining ubiquitous in the mainframe world.

Quantifiably Business Critical, Built on Strength, and Data 

A 2017 COBOL survey found that 84% of enterprises rated COBOL as strategic to organizations. In the 2019-2020 and 2021 versions of the survey, this percentage went up to 92%. This finding is a strong proof point to the value and positive perception of COBOL, particularly from some of the world’s largest organizations. To explore how COBOL has been able to remain viable for so long, we must look at how it originally came into being and how it provides value for businesses. 

COBOL was devised to address a specific commercial need for a reimagined user experience even before UX was a known term. The best brains in science and commerce came together at an assembled conference with government support to discuss how to build useful technology. They recognized a major challenge for businesses in how complex technology was to use at the time. 

The B in COBOL stands for business, and for good reason. It is useful for easily managing and manipulating numeric processes, and it provides value through its data-centricity. To make the most of COBOL, you must define what data you will be using and how it should be managed. 

Over time, the performance and throughput COBOL is designed to handle make it the envy of many other languages. All of that processing can be achieved out of the box and as quickly as the business needs. 

Easy to Understand, Anywhere You Like 

Among COBOL’s strengths is its ability to be understood by novice and experienced programmers alike — COBOL’s readability is one of its most well-known calling cards. MOVE means move, ADD means add, and so on. In fact, it was now-famous computer scientist Grace Hopper’s suggestion to use plain English and avoid symbolism as a key feature so that anyone could use it. 

COBOL is easily learned if you have any sort of technical background. Customers, academics, and experts have found it easy to read, learn, maintain, and train (we’re talking days rather than months) — critical requirements for longevity.

A less widely understood fact is that COBOL runs almost everywhere and always has. In fact, the 1959 specification demanded COBOL work the same wherever you ran it. That original design predates any sort of standard environment — including the IBM mainframe — as the standard for computer equipment was still an unknown in 1960. 

The best way to reflect portability is, of course, to list where COBOL works or worked. For example, since my company started building COBOL compilers for microprocessors in the late 1970s, it has counted more than 500 platform and operating system combinations where COBOL has been made available. COBOL runs wherever the business needs it to run.  

Viva La Evolution 

While many of these combinations were in the original design, COBOL predates a lot of technology that would go on to become de-facto standards themselves, including mainframes, UNIX, object orientation, relational and other data formats, the Internet, the cloud, containers, and generations of other computing innovation. COBOL needed to evolve as a language and as an environment that integrates with the world around it. Thanks to the standard bodies, the vendor community, and more recently the open-source community, it has been able to remain contemporary. The vendor community, in particular, continues to provide significant investment to the tune of tens of millions of dollars annually. 

Another recent study undertaken by the Standish Group and Micro Focus provides overwhelming evidence that modernization techniques that evolve incumbent COBOL applications rather than rewriting them are the most efficient means of delivering IT value. As a result, vendors continue to innovate the tools to support modern business needs. Additionally, in the 2021 survey, Micro Focus found that 64% of respondents intend to modernize their COBOL applications and 72% of respondents see modernization as an overall business strategy. 

More recently still, COBOL’s successful evolution is well illustrated by the global prevalence numbers being reported by both open-source and independent research groups — one major study estimates more than 800 billion lines of production code are still running the global economy. 

Looking Ahead

In 1959, nobody at CODASYL (the committee tasked with devising what became the COBOL language) could have imagined a discussion about their newly created technology in the far-beyond future of 2021. However, any technology that outlasts its creators needs to continuously promote itself to new decision-makers, retrain future generations of practitioners, and ensure it remains viable and contemporary. 

Tackling those requirements remains the responsibility of the COBOL community at large. What is hugely encouraging is the amount of organic energy already underway in that regard, including professional COBOL groups on LinkedIn and Facebook with thousands of members, highly populated global and regionally focused user communities, and groups such as the Open Mainframe Project COBOL Working Group. In Congress, legislators have been looking at potential acts to protect and encourage investment in core business systems to mitigate risk in IT systems.

This is not the whole story, because each business decision about if or how to continue improving COBOL applications requires a balanced, informed perspective. This approach has worked for more than 60 years, but the work must continue.

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