COBOL: It's Everywhere



The plethora of anti-COBOL articles on the web has prompted me to write this article. I have heard for years that 'COBOL is dying' or 'COBOL will be dead soon' and yet here it is 20 years later and guess what, COBOL is still going strong! I've been coding COBOL since roughly 1991 and have met quite a few COBOL developers over the years. I am now working for Micro Focus, the leading Enterprise Application Management and Modernization Company with over 1500 employees worldwide. While our mission has expanded significantly since our birth in 1976, our roots are firmly in the COBOL environment.

I know that's not what some of you may want to hear but it's true. COBOL is still doing the heavy lifting of the business world and will continue to do so for many, many more years to come. (I'm betting well into my non-existent grandchildren's careers!) I'd like to discuss in this article why COBOL has continually received a less than equal opportunity in the market-place: Lack of knowledge as to what COBOL is, has become and can do. I'd like to address these issues one at a time.

What COBOL is

COBOL was originally developed in 1959 by Admiral Grace Hopper for the Department of Defense. It was the first language developed that enabled a person to utilize a 'normal' language style to create applications to run on a computer. Prior to that assembly language was the prevalent language utilized. COBOL, as you may know is an acronym for COmmon Business Oriented Language, the emphasis being on business.  It is utilized in every industry around the globe from telecommunications, banking, finance, manufacturing, government, aerospace, security, and many more too numerous to mention. Micro Focus asked one reporter to live for one day without using COBOL and it couldn't be done.  It is everywhere. So why then does it receive such a bad reputation if it's so widely used? One would think the prevalence of COBOL would make it quite popular. One of the main reasons is the environment in which a COBOL developer has to operate in. The majority of COBOL is found on mainframe based systems (IBM, Fujitsu, Hitachi, and DEC) that have a simple character based user interface (UI). Costs to maintain these systems are usually quite high and priority is given to the applications running the company, not the developers creating or maintaining them. So to add to a less than robust UI we have low priority which translates into long times to edit, compile, and test programming changes. All this means developers get frustrated and start looking for something other than mainframe (COBOL) based development, but they take their frustrations with them when they leave thus spreading the word that COBOL is a dead-end or brain-dead world. Nothing however can be further from the truth.

What COBOL has become

COBOL has grown significantly. Do you know it is the only computer language that has evolved through multiple standards? Over the year the ANSI Committee has continued to expand and refine the language through several different standards and continues to improve the language to keep up with the growing technology. 

Does C, C++ or Java have a standard that compiler vendors have to adhere to? I seem to recall a recent analyst's review of languages which listed COBOL as "stable and mature" while Java and a few others were actually considered to be in a declining state.  That is a trend that continues to occur with many of the "popular" languages out there, but not COBOL.  COBOL has grown to match the needs of the business and is one of the most portable languages around. A program compiled on a mainframe can be, if no machine specific instructions are included in the code, moved to a Windows, Unix or Linux platform, recompiled and utilized for what it was intended to.

COBOL has evolved into a multifaceted tool that could be utilized for a number of solutions from web to web-services to client-server applications. However COBOL was intended to process large amounts of data in an efficient manner (efficient in CPU, memory and storage usage). COBOL was not designed to manage a UI. While it has evolved into a graphically capable interface there are other languages such as C# or VB.NET that were designed specifically to create the users interface. Why not leave COBOL to do the heavy lifting of the transaction and provide the answers to the questions the application is meant to answer? After all, it is the original COBOL that was developed by a business analyst to answer a specific business problem. Let COBOL continue to perform the job it's been doing along, helping companies be profitable.

What COBOL can do

Web Services, web sites, code-behind, XML data read and write, client-server applications, data transformation, .NET integration, Java integration, Visual Studio.NET, Eclipse, recursive calls, pointers, arrays, bit level data manipulation, write once run anywhere,  WPF, WCF, ASP.NET, 32-bit and 64-bit, ActiveX, ADO.NET, Assemblies, Call the Windows API, CGI, COM, CORBA, DBCS, dynamic linking, file conversion, floating point, HTML, ISAPI, memory management, mouse manipulation,  multi-threading, National Locale Support, Object Oriented, ODBC, OLE, parsing, spawn processes, SQL - DB2, Informix, ODBC, Oracle, SQL Server, Sybase, UDB, stored procedures, Unicode support, XML formatting and parsing to name a few.

Is there something not mentioned above? Let us know and we'll probably be able to provide an example.

Dead?

A recent blog post I've seen claims COBOL is "...so very, very dead."  I think that is still 30 years away at least from being true.  As long as smart decision makers look at the options and take the lowest risk, highest return approach by letting COBOL do the job for which is was intended (high volume processing of data to pay the bills and keep the world running), COBOL will be around a long time. Don't bash it, don't underestimate it. Embrace it and use it for what it was intended to do, getting high volume business processing done!