It may be hard to believe that a programming language that debuted the same year Alaska became the 49th US state (1959) is still in heavy usage today, but it’s true. COBOL is a quiet powerhouse, driving trillions of dollars worth of financial transactions every day, among other data-heavy tasks.
Wherever you may land on the COBOL debate — should it stay or should it go — the fact is that for the foreseeable future, it’s here to stay. Read on to learn more about this inventive, powerful language, and the challenges facing the industries that rely on it.
What Is COBOL?
COBOL stands for Common Business Oriented Language. The Department of Defense (DoD) developed ths high-level language for building business systems, and 60 years later, it’s still prominent throughout the world.
The group of programmers who created COBOL at the DoD — the Committee on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL) — based COBOL on Grace Hopper’s FLOW-MATIC and other languages like Univac’s AIMACO and IBM’s COMTRAN. Interestingly, IBM is one prominent company still using COBOL.
Today, organizations face a significant challenge when it comes to finding COBOL programmers and developers. Leasing a mainframe is expensive, but required to learn the language. Moreover, young programmers tend to apply their talents to more modern languages.
Today, some universities still teach mainframe and COBOL courses, but they are far and few between. Developers often find they will need to source talent overseas or pay top dollar for local consultancy fees.
Why Is COBOL Still Common?
COBOL is limited versus the common programming languages of today. It doesn’t allow for dynamic memory allocation or recursion, or easily access base features of the OS or a particular computer architecture. It’s not the ideal choice for writing a compiler.
The reality is that COBOL isn’t limited in its ability to function as originally intended. CODASYL developed COBOL for business programming, and that’s where it excels. While the term wasn’t in use in 1959, today we’d refer to COBOL as a domain-specific language.
What makes COBOL so well-suited for the business domain? Esteemed, longtime software engineer Robert Glass, who considers COBOL a “national treasure,” identified several key features that contribute to COBOL’s effectiveness as a business programming language in his book “In the Beginning: Recollections of Software Pioneers.” Glass said business programming languages need to declare, manage and manipulate heterogeneous data, a difficult task for general-purpose languages.
Business programs, Glass noted, mix fixed and variable-length strings, floating-point, integer, and decimal data in complicated structures with variable parts. Business and financial data must be managed using true decimal data types.
For example, accounting systems must contain data that is correct to the last decimal digits and reproduce the exact results of hand-calculation, a task that Glass said is not simple given the complexity of working with conventional floating-point numbers.
Finally, Glass noted, a business-oriented language needs to both access and manipulate vast amounts of externally maintained, record-structured data.
Yes, general-purpose programming languages can perform these tasks, but COBOL was purpose-built for this kind of work.
Then there’s the fact that today, literally hundreds of billions of lines of COBOL exist. Widespread migration away from the language is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Who Is Using COBOL?
When it comes to financial institutions, the better question might be who isn’t using COBOL. Around 220 billion lines of COBOL code run about 80 percent of in-person financial services transactions and 95 percent of ATM swipes, according to recent studies.
It’s not surprising, then, that 92 percent of respondents to a recent survey said their existing COBOL applications are strategic to the business, which, by the way, process some $3 trillion in commerce every single day.
These same financial institutions, along with governments of all sizes, are desperate for COBOL programmers who can help them manage massive undertakings like statewide unemployment programs.
COBOL may not offer as much potential for modern programming tasks, but as a reliable high-volume data processing language, it’s ideal.
Where Is COBOL Heading?
Given that the language is 60 years old and its inventors have long since passed away, you might expect that if COBOL is heading anywhere, it’s surely the trash heap. If so, you’d be wrong.
In fact, 63 percent of respondents to a recent survey said they’d improve on their existing COBOL systems in 2020. COBOL code bases are growing, not shrinking — the average code base today runs to 9.9 million lines, up from 8.4 million in 2017.
COBOL isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
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