COBOL – A Viable Programming Language?

For the last twenty years or so I have encountered many scenarios where Mainframe users consider migration to a Distributed Systems (E.g. Wintel, UNIX/Linux, et al) platform, where more often than not the primary reasons seems to be “green screen” and/or “COBOL is a declining legacy language” based.

Going back to basics, COBOL is a Common Business Oriented Language, although the naysayers might say COBOL is a Completely Obsolete Business Oriented Language; we will perhaps try to be more dispassionate in this discussion…

Industry Analysts have stated that there are ~220 Billion lines of COBOL code and ~100,000 programmers and that COBOL applications process ~80% of business transactions daily, and that there are ~200 times more COBOL transactions processed daily, when compared with Google searches!  A lot of numbers and statistics, but seemingly COBOL is still widely used and accepted.  Even from a new development viewpoint, ~5 Billion lines of COBOL code per annum (~15% of Annual Global Development) is stated, suggesting that COBOL is not in any way obsolete or legacy, so why is COBOL perceived by some in a dubious manner?

Maybe because COBOL was introduced in 1959 and primarily it is deployed on the Mainframe, and so anything that is 50+ years old and has an association with the Mainframe just has to be dubious, doesn’t it?  Of course not, as this arguably “pioneering” or at least one of the first “widely deployed” programming languages allowed many global and significant businesses grow, in tandem with the IBM Mainframe platform, automating and streamlining business processes, increasing productivity and so on.  So depending on your viewpoint, COBOL was either in the right place at the right time, stimulating the Data Processing (DP) and Information Technology (IT) revolution, or COBOL just got lucky, it was “Hobson’s Choice”…

Although there have been several iterations of COBOL standards (I.E. COBOL-68, COBOL-74, COBOL-85), primarily associated with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and more latterly COBOL 2002 (ISO), a COBOL program that was written and compiled on an IBM Mainframe several decades ago, will most likely still run on the latest generation IBM Mainframe.  Put another way, its backwards compatibility ability has been significant, and although there were some migration considerations associated with the Language Environment (LE), the original COBOL Application Development investment has generated a readily usable Return On Investment (ROI) over and over again.  How true is this for other programming languages and computing platforms?  For the avoidance of doubt, a COBOL program that was written in 16-bit, can still run today on a 64-bit platform, and with a modicum of evolution, fully exploit the latest functionality and 64-bit performance, with minimal fuss.  While how many revolutionary or significant upgrades have been required for Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) software and associated bespoke application development code, to upgrade non-Mainframe platforms from 16-32-64-bit?

So, is COBOL a viable programming language of the future?  One must draw one’s own conclusions, but we can look to recent functional enhancements and statements of direction from an IBM Mainframe viewpoint.

In recent years IBM have actually increased the number of COBOL R&D personnel by a factor of ~100%, while increasing allocated investment, commitment and interest accordingly.  This observation more than any other, suggests that at least from an IBM Mainframe viewpoint, COBOL is an important function.

From a technical function viewpoint, the realm of possibility exists with COBOL, interacting with all 21st century programming and function techniques, dismissing the notion that COBOL can only be considered as a traditional/legacy option for CICS-Batch applications and associated “green screen” environments, for example:

  • Support for CICS integrated translator
  • Support for latest SQL data types in syntax via DB2
  • Support for Java interoperability via object-oriented COBOL syntax
  • Support access for WebSphere enterprise beans
  • Support for Java SDK
  • Support for XML high speed parsing and validation (UTF-8, UTF-16 & various EBCDIC codepages)

From a strategic statement of direction viewpoint, IBM have declared the following major notable activities:

  • Performance and resource utilization optimization, reducing TCO accordingly
  • Improved middleware (I.E. CICS, DB2, IMS, WebSphere) programmability and problem determination
  • Improved capabilities (E.g. XML, Java, et al) for modernizing & creating business critical applications
  • Improved programmer (E.g. Usability and Problem Determination) productivity
  • Source and load (I.E. recompile not required) compatibility (E.g. old programs can call new and vice versa)

Even for those occasions where the IBM Mainframe platform might be decommissioned, COBOL can still be processed on alternative platforms via code migration techniques such as Micro Focus, where such functions and services can be Cloud based.  However, once again, isn’t the IBM Mainframe the ultimate “Cloud” platform, which has arguably been the case “forever thus”?

One must draw one’s own conclusions as to why the Mainframe platform and/or COBOL applications are often considered for replacement via migration, when the Mainframe platform is both strategic and cost efficient.  As with any technology decision, there is no “one size fits all” solution, but perhaps a little education can go a long way, and at least the acceptance that seeming “legacy” technologies are strategic and viable.