Cobol: Not dead yet

The 50+ year-old programming language still hasn't died; it's not even pining for the fjords

Programming language stalwart Cobol will continue to have a place in the enterprise for decades to come, at least according to one software developer. Ads for Cobol programmers, or jobs where Cobol knowledge is listed as an advantage, regularly run into the double digits at job search site Seek.com.au.

Cobol — 'Common Business-Oriented Language' — continues to play a pivotal role in running many of the world’s businesses and public services. In the past it was used to power the majority of global ATM transactions.

According to enterprise application management company, Micro Focus, which recently brought Cobol compatibility to Microsoft's Azure Cloud service, there are more than 200 billion lines of Cobol code in existence, with hundreds more being created by the day. So much so, that a Cobol programming job is even now considered to be one of the safest and most sought after in IT.

Speaking to Computerworld Australia, founder and managing director of software company Filix, Michael Burgun, says that in some cases it’s an unnecessary job to rewrite working Cobol code in another language, particularly given some Cobol-based systems have been running for decades.

"It’s entirely feasible to take that code and maybe with just some minor adjustments but largely not, recompile it and integrate it with whatever you choose in the new environment," Burgun says.

"I wouldn’t say people should transition away from Cobol so much. There is a benefit from modernising your existing Cobol code and using Cobol with your legacy applications."

Burgun adds, however, that he wouldn't choose to write a new application in Cobol. "I don’t see any reason why people can’t develop new systems in Cobol but I doubt they will unfortunately," he says. "I think there will be [a transition away from it] but I think there is a lot of code out there that still needs to be maintained and moved forward into the future. When you’ve got a system you’ve spent millions of dollars tailoring to meet the exact needs of the way you run your company, you’re not going to throw that out overnight.

"In fact every company I’ve ever seen that’s made the decision to do that spends three or four years mucking around and then trying to bring life back to their old system."

According to Burgun, there are benefits to be found in modernising existing Cobol code and using it with legacy applications.

“For example, Westpac many years ago when I was working for them had a project called CS90, they were going to rewrite all of their systems in a 4GL language and throw out all of their Cobol systems,” he says. “The majority of that code that was running prior to 1990 is still running today with modifications in Cobol so it’s not an easy job to throw out your existing system when you’ve invested million of dollars in it.”

Instead of fully replacing Cobol, people have begun integrating it into modern systems, Burgun says, getting the “good stuff” from the existing systems and wrapping it with newer technology and tools.

The staying power of Cobol, Burgun says, is the ease with which it can be learnt and its business orientation. In addition, the language has been standardised on a wide variety of platforms.

“I don’t believe it’ll be gone completely in my lifetime, it’s just too expensive to remove and people set up their business processes based on software,” he says. “When you’ve got 20-30,000 people, or more for the bigger banks, doing all their work around their existing systems, they’re not going to retrain that number of people, they’re more likely to tweak their existing code and evolve it into something that looks quite different.”

Follow Chloe Herrick on Twitter: @chloe_CW

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

Tags programming languagesCOBOL

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