At 60, COBOL continues to power FS

By Derek Britton | 9 September 2019

In the world of commerce, disruptive technology can make all the difference, but so often comes from simple idea, and usually one borne out of necessity. Caxton’s printing press was based on the need to produce larger quantities of written material to the court. The automobile was an attempt to support greater workforce mobility to the post-industrial age, while the telephone aimed to improve communications to the late Victorian era. And, of course, they all survived and thrived.

Looking at FS computing, not much has stuck it out for any length of time, as the digital era heralds all manner of popular, disruptive technology, that so often supersedes what went before. Application programming interfaces (APIs), distributed ledger technology (DLT), blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI). Nothing stays the same.

Bucking the trend. When good ideas persist

A couple of exceptions prove the rule, however. Against a post-war scramble to modernise commerce and economic progress, the Common business-oriented language (COBOL) was designed specifically for an easier commercial future. Created in the late 1950s with commercial, governmental and academic minds meeting to manage its creation, the new language of COBOL provided unprecedented readability, simplicity and suitability for large-scale commercial business applications that made it indispensable.

It is hard to overstate COBOL’s impact. It pervades more of commerce than anyone realises - Gartner reported that 80 percent of the world's business ran on COBOL with over 200 billion lines of code and five billion lines more being written annually. Along with mainframes and the transaction system Customer information control system (CICS)which itself celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, COBOL has kept the world economy going by running the world’s most important business and government systems ever since. It remains the go-to for core FS systems the world over, and has continued to evolve to support a variety of use-cases - everything from old school batch processes to back office support for funky mobile apps. It has adopted new standards, new paradigms, and even borrowed some syntax from other languages. It has evolved to stay relevant. About 95 percent of ATM visits still use COBOL code, Reuters reported in April.

Better by design; better over time

Some might argue that any technology sixty years old needs replacing. And without constant change, that’s a fair point to make. However, COBOL possesses two primary attributes that caused it to take life, and then continue, as the ideal IT language for business.

Built for business

Look at what COBOL’s original design included out of the box – a peerless definition of suitability for financial services:

  1. COBOL was designed with business in mind. Its strong data typing, file handling and arithmetic accuracy (to 38 digits) meant it was soon put to work for some of the world’s biggest, most complex enterprise systems across many vertical industries. Oftentimes using CICS and mainframe resiliency, COBOL apps quickly became synonymous with reliability, speed and scalability. Even to this day, nothing really comes close.
  2. Ease of Use. COBOL is arguably the easiest of all computer languages. Being easy to write thanks to its natural language-like verbs (ADD, MOVE, DISPLAY etc.), it also makes COBOL code easy to understand. Those who use it claim that COBOL competency can be reached in a matter of hours, while many younger IT professionals are learning it too, thanks to its inclusion within Eclipse and Visual Studio IDEs.
  3. Portability. Stipulated in the original requirements, COBOL’s portability means COBOL systems compile and execute the same across mainframes, Linux, Unix, Windows, and even in the cloud. Market demand and vendor support assured (and continues to assure) COBOL is available on every leading platform: a safe bet for future strategy.

Built to last

Even in the 1950s – the COBOL designers expected change. The original spec stated “the language must be open-ended and capable of accepting change and amendment”. And ongoing adaptability has been on the agenda ever since, thanks to relentless innovation from IBM, Micro Focus and others. Supporting all manner of technical developments over the past 50 years, countless platforms, databases, languages, interfaces, the internet, object orientation, APIs, REST/JSON, Cloud, Containers, JVM and .NET integration. Whatever else the technical direction, COBOL’s extensibility, integration and adaptability makes it the right choice to support digital innovation.

Just as the mainframe has enjoyed a five decade era of continued evolution and development, the business language of choice has maintained the very same trajectory, supported by significant investments from the de-facto COBOL curators, to meet the needs of an evolving global economy. Nowadays a COBOL developer will use the same contemporary IDE to code in COBOL as anything else, which will fit neatly into their DevOps processes and toolchain, and be deployable as a service across any new platform, supporting any range of new devices. Outdated it isn’t. Trustworthy, it most certainly is.

Hear, hear

Let’s leave it to the practitioners and experts to offer the final words.

“Our choice for Micro Focus COBOL over 25 years ago is still paying dividends for us. We have enjoyed continued wide platform and OS support and have now made the move to the cloud, leveraging Visual COBOL and its Docker support”. Gary Cowell, Solution Architect, Advanced

“Many critical systems, dating back as far as the sixties, rely on the power and stability of COBOL. However, in today’s world of computing, COBOL utilises modern development environments and happily integrates with other cutting edge technologies. Truly a language for the ages”.  Mike Madden, Owner, Legacy IT Consultants Ltd.

At Micro Focus, our view is simple. “For the last 60 years, the COBOL language has powered countless business systems that underpin our economy. The next 60 years for this legendary language are even brighter with new opportunities to fuel IT transformation”.  Ed Airey, Micro Focus.

For a 60 year term report on COBOL, and how it will support your organization’s future, learn more here.

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