COBOL vendor says the language is still kicking

The phrase "The Future of COBOL" might seem an oxymoron, but in a talk so titled at the Club de Investigacion Technologica SA's software transformation seminar last Friday, Acucorp Vice President of Strategic Directions Gerold Ekstrom defended the workhorse programming language and warned that like it or not, companies will be dealing with applications based on COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) for decades to come.

He's been listening to proclamations of the death of COBOL since the early 1970s, Ekstrom said, but with millions of lines of code powering still-functioning applications, COBOL remains a viable and evolving part of the corporate IT landscape.

The lingering economic downturn contributes to COBOL's longevity, he said. When times are good and cash is flowing freely, companies are more eager to tackle ambitions upgrades or replacement projects. But with such projects prone to running behind schedule and over budget, enthusiasm for them fades when budgets are tight, he said.

Meanwhile, companies too often overlook the language's advantages, he said.

"(Acucorp's compiler) has the modest tagline, 'The most portable compiler in the universe,'" he said. "We are what Java tries to be."

But the COBOL market has its risks, he acknowledged. A big one is the advancing age of its experienced programmers. The IT industry has shown little desire to train new COBOL coders, and universities treat the language as deader than Latin.

"The majority of youngsters aren't too eager to work with COBOL. It doesn't blink and flash enough," Ekstrom said. "And that is something I don't understand. I don't understand why IBM (Corp.) doesn't pick up training, because it's applications (running on their mainframes) that are going to be hurt by this."

Still, citing his optimistic nature, Ekstrom said he thinks COBOL's stability and entrenchment means the language still faces "huge" growth opportunities, on which Acucorp, in San Diego, hopes to capitalize.

"I can guarantee you that if you went in, you would be surprised what COBOL can deliver," he said. "We run on everything from Windows on up to IBM mainframe Linux. We have concentrated on modernizing COBOL."

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