The Programming Language that Doesn’t Need to Die : By Professionals

If COBOL have been to go extinct, we’d all be in deep trouble

The world’s banking, enterprise and governmental techniques are underpinned by a programming language developed over half a century ago – however fewer individuals than ever know use it as we speak.

Devised in 1959 by Dr. Grace Hopper and her group, COBOL has endured the passage of time extraordinarily efficiently, with over 220 billion lines of code nonetheless in use as we speak (and counting). If not for FORTRAN, which was invented 5 years earlier, COBOL would maintain the title of the world’s oldest active programming language.

COBOL’s magnificence, in response to its proponents, is in its simplicity, stability and reliability, which allowed the code to be adopted far and large when it first hit the scene.

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“COBOL was created before there were software engineers or developers as we know those titles today,” notes Barry Baker, VP IBM Z Software. “It makes use of English phrases and was designed for enterprise customers. As such, it was easy to make use of and get began with, but additionally straightforward to read, modify and debug.”

Nevertheless, utilizing a decades-old programming language – regardless of how dependable – additionally has its downsides. Programs go with out upkeep or improve for years longer than they need to and employees churn charge means the original developers are likely long gone.

Regardless of its antiquity (particularly within the context of computing’s temporary historical past), the language continues to prop up mission-critical techniques in the private and non-private sectors, which suggests the worsening abilities shortage may have devastating results, universally felt.

What is COBOL good for?

COBOL runs totally on mainframe computer systems, which governments and huge enterprises have traditionally leaned upon for compute-intensive workloads resembling batch processing, knowledge analytics and large-scale accounting functions.

Right now, cloud computing services resembling AWS and Microsoft Azure are able to performing these identical kinds of duties, with out the need for physical {hardware} that each takes up space and can even show costly to take care of.

Regardless of the emergence of cloud computing, although, the mainframe market is alive and properly – which suggests COBOL is alive and kicking too.

Two companies play an outsized position within the repairs of COBOL and are thought-about by many to be the custodians of the language: IBM and Micro Focus.

IBM dominates the mainframe market with the IBM Z, which has now been interoperable with the cloud for various years. Introduced in September, the most recent iteration (IBM z15) is designed expressly to help hybrid cloud environments and is succesful (with the help of COBOL) of processing one trillion transactions per day.

Micro Focus, in the meantime, offers COBOL-specific improvement and modernization instruments to organizations reliant on the language.

Ideally suited to processing information and parsing massive volumes of knowledge, COBOL is most frequently discovered in the finance, telecoms, aviation and healthcare sectors – as well as in authorities techniques.

“It is a language that was specifically built to be easy to use for encapsulating the application business logic and accommodating the transaction processing requirements of the core infrastructure systems that serve many organizations that operate in these sectors,”  defined Bola Rotibi, Research Director for Software program Growth at analyst agency CCS Insight.

“There are very few financial applications and transactions around the world that are not served either wholly or in part by a COBOL application, even in today’s digitally enabled operations.”

Certainly, in response to figures from Reuters, 43% of US banking techniques are constructed on COBOL, whereas a whopping 80% of in-person transactions and 95% of ATM interactions depend on the language.

IBM Z mainframes, in the meantime, course of circa 87% of credit card transactions, $8 trillion in funds and 4 billion passenger flights each year claims IBM.

COBOL has additionally been iterated upon quite a few instances since it was first developed, which, in response to Baker, is “a key measure of figuring out the vitality of a language.”

Older COBOL purposes, for instance, could be simply recompiled and run in the cloud, or in established environments resembling Linux and Windows.

What is not COBOL good for?

It’s true that COBOL wouldn’t have stood the take a look at of time if it didn’t fulfil a broad vary of capabilities – and fulfil them properly. Nevertheless it has its limitations too.

“COBOL works properly for what it was designed for” is the widespread chorus amongst these with essentially the most intimate information of the language. In different phrases, the code is poorly suited to various fashionable use instances that arose after its creation.

For instance, designed lengthy earlier than the internet existed, the language is not equipped to facilitate the extent of interplay and dynamism required by cell and internet purposes.

In accordance with Baker, as new workloads emerged, COBOL had to concede its place to newer languages, similar to Python and Java.

“Programming language recognition ebbs and flows attributable to altering developer preferences, the emergence of latest programming kinds (like object-oriented programming) and new kinds of workload/computation (like high-efficiency computing, analytics and machine learning),” he stated.

Fashionable programming languages are additionally tighter and extra efficient than COBOL – a boon for builders working beneath time pressure.

COBOL code


Even in situations during which COBOL is anticipated to thrive, the language’s long legacy has confirmed problematic.

In recent months, COBOL-based techniques have been discovered incapable of keeping up with the number of unemployment claims obtained by a number of US states, as unemployment skyrocketed within the nation on account of the coronavirus pandemic.

The shortage of obtainable COBOL developers forced Governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, to subject a public name for volunteers able to code within the decades-old language. “We actually have a system that is 40-plus years old,” he complained.

The poorly-optimized and outdated system relied upon COBOL code written years ago and was inflicting a critical delay, and the knock-on impact on the lives of candidates was likely important.

Adrian Keward, Principal Answer Architect at open supply software program agency Pink Hat, believes organizations are hesitant to meddle with years-old COBOL techniques, partly as a result of they have all the time functioned perfectly well. Nevertheless, this has led to a harmful angle to system maintenance and renovation.

“A number of [COBOL] code is nonetheless in use, however fewer individuals perceive it nowadays. Because of this the language tends to be left alone till changing it turns into vital,” he defined.

“As the vast majority of COBOL code has not been touched for many years, businesses commonly use the strategy ‘if it’s not broke, don’t repair it’.”

Why did COBOL exit of vogue?

Of the builders that are nonetheless aware of COBOL, many are shifting in direction of the twilight of their careers; solely 11.5% are beneath the age of 35, whereas 18.8% are 55 or older.

The popularity of the language has been on a steep downward trajectory since circa 2002, falling from 5th hottest programming language to 33rd, though it has admittedly enjoyed a mini resurgence lately.

So, how may a language used so broadly, for such an important set of use instances, ever be allowed to float in direction of obscurity?

Plenty of elements are at play, however chief amongst them, the easy truth that COBOL was now not thought-about attractive by up-and-coming expertise in computer science. To no less than some extent, COBOL was toppled from its perch by the altering winds of desire.

In accordance with John Pyke, CEO of legacy migration agency CIMtrek, “IT is a vogue business, with new graduates wanting to work on the ‘subsequent massive factor’. Normally in languages resembling Java and C# – with the purposes produced being very interactive and API-driven.”


Cycled out of vogue, universities have been additionally disincentivized to run COBOL programs. This served to aggravate the issue, which might solely rear its head years down the road, when the talents scarcity amongst youthful developers started to symbolize itself within the workforce.

“COBOL drifted out of vogue for 2 causes,” suggests Keward. “Firstly, there is an absence of universities working programs that educate college students strategy and grasp COBOL. Secondly, technological developments moved operations from the mainframe to the client server and Java language gained notable traction. Innovation received out over stability.”

In a bid to rectify the skills imbalance (and presumably to extend the lifetime of the language from which they revenue), each IBM and Micro Focus have launched separate revival initiatives.

Prompted by the pandemic, IBM rolled out a brand new course designed each for newbies and professionals requiring a COBOL refresher. It has additionally launched an initiative designed to attach COBOL programmers with potential employers.

Identifying a downturn in COBOL expertise, Micro Focus collaborated with companies and universities to determine the COBOL Academic Program, which offers free access to the most recent educating instruments.

The corporate additionally hosts a COBOL Programmers Facebook Group, with around 15,000 members. “Dinosaurs, COBOL Programmers established and new, and different slaves of the code are all welcome,” reads the About page – which says extra in regards to the language than maybe anybody may in 2,000 phrases.

What’s Stopping companies shifting on from COBOL?

Essentially the most important barrier dealing with companies trying to scale back their reliance on COBOL is the amount of code in circulation. The method doesn’t essentially pose an insurmountable technical problem, however actually presents a logistical one.

In accordance with Pyke, the magnitude of the scenario could possibly be in contrast with the Y2K fiasco, that saw organizations scramble to change their computer techniques to accommodate a year that required 4 numbers to be correctly differentiated (i.e. 2000, as a substitute of ‘99).

“Think back 20 years – the amount of cash and assets put into lowering the impression of Y2K ought to provide you with an concept as to the herculean process of changing the dependency on COBOL,” he stated.

Banking giant Capital One is among the many massive enterprises determined to attenuate their dependence on the language and is at present present process the intensive work essential to shift away from the mainframe.

“Working mainframes is not solely costlier than the cloud, mainframes additionally lack the flexibility to quickly scale options and don’t enable corporations to benefit from open source,” stated Joseph Muratore, VP Technology at Capital One.

“We are aggressively working to modernize our last remaining mainframe purposes to cut back and remove Capital One’s dependence on COBOL…Many corporations underestimate the excellent all-in nature of this kind of transformation,” he added.

Within the case of Capital One, the sums align in such a approach that it is smart to move away from COBOL and the mainframe, however this won’t essentially be the case for all companies depending on the language.

In truth, in response to a recent Micro Focus survey, a big proportion of companies have no intention of wholly abandoning the language – maybe because of the gravity of the duty or maybe the expense.

Over two thirds (70%) of enterprises surveyed stated they favored modernization as an strategy to implementing change, versus ripping and changing key COBOL purposes.

Nearly all respondents (92%), in the meantime, stated COBOL stays of strategic significance in new ecosystems. All of which suggests the world’s second-oldest programming language is right here to remain.

For organizations whose financial relationship with COBOL means that shifting away is unimaginable (and people for whom the language nonetheless fulfills its perform completely properly) the one resolution to the talents hole dilemma is a dedication to coaching employees and to performing on upkeep wants lengthy earlier than techniques malfunction.

With out these important measures, organizations may properly discover themselves with a bunch of crucial COBOL-based purposes, however with nobody to take care of them.