Ken Powell


Cobol doesn't belong in a museum

Smithsonian’s recognition is deserved, but the programming language is a long way from retirement

Last month, the Smithsonian announced plans to launch an exhibit on Cobol at the National Museum of American History. The exhibit, which is planned to open this spring, celebrates 50 years of the Cobol computer programming language, and its influence over the past five decades.

Much like GCN Lab Director John Breeden II, I believe that the spirit of Smithsonian’s Cobol debut is not an indication of its antiquity, but rather a testament to its past, as well as its continued success. Just as Edison’s light bulb was a game-changing invention in its day, Cobol has changed the face of computing, and continues to have a tremendous impact on our everyday lives.

Related coverage:

A toast to Cobol, a true computing hero

Cobol stands for Common Business-Oriented Language. Before there was Cobol, each computer manufacturer had its own proprietary programming language. In 1959, Cobol was introduced as a single, standardized programming language that could be used across technology platforms, providing a cohesive foundation for the future of modern computing.

In recent years, many government organizations have pushed to phase out Cobol applications, replacing them or rewriting them in newer programming languages. Despite this movement, which has been going on for years – with mixed results – Cobol persists and is even thriving in government enterprise environments today.

As Cobol comes to the Smithsonian, one wonders what the future has in store for it among a younger class of programming languages like Java and C+. The fact remains that Cobol is a proven, flexible and robust programming language, one that many government organizations still depend upon. Despite showing its age, Cobol still looks great for 50, and when you consider its continued prevalence today, it deserves a great deal of respect.

Although Cobol may lack the “hip factor” of younger programming languages, we still depend on it – a lot. It is estimated that there are more than 200 billion lines of Cobol code in production, with more than 5 billion lines of new code added to live systems every year. Consider also that there are over 200 times more transactions processed by Cobol applications than Google searches in a single day.

Cobol is also ubiquitous in government. Many mainframe applications written in Cobol continue to run mission-critical government business processes, including logistics, accounting and human resources.

Cobol is dependable and versatile. In the 50 years that Cobol has been around, it has outlasted an array of other programming languages, such as Mantis, Fortran, MUMPS, and Forte – all popular in their time. This in part is due to Cobol’s ability to integrate across platforms and with modern technologies. There are no restrictions within Cobol regarding what technologies may be integrated.

Today many agencies, using application modernization technology, have successfully integrated their Cobol applications with younger programming languages such as Java and .NET. To cut mainframe costs and drive innovation, agencies have also been able to migrate their heavy-duty Cobol applications onto lower-cost platforms such as Linux or Windows, with the added benefit of being able to extend Cobol to the Web.

Thanks to recent advances in Cobol modernization, many organizations are even looking to migrate their Cobol applications to the cloud, integrating Cobol with the Microsoft Azure cloud platform.

Cobol as a programming language also remains less technical and “geeky” than most other languages. As such, it is much easier to understand, even to the non-trained user, eliminating the steep learning curve that is common with other programming languages. A sharp programmer can be up and running with Cobol in a much shorter time, and there are a variety of tools available to developers, such as Microsoft’s Visual Studio, which allow them to work with Cobol in a way that’s intuitive to Java and .NET programmers.

Today it is estimated that there are roughly 1.5 million to 2 million active Cobol developers in the world. Consider also that many of these developers have been working with Cobol for decades and have a depth of knowledge that is unparalleled. This is a tremendous intellectual resource that simply cannot and should not disappear overnight.

To keep the Cobol torch burning, many long-standing industry-academic partnerships have been formed to bring Cobol back to the classroom. Micro Focus, for example, has partnered with more than 100 universities worldwide to provide Cobol training to student programmers, preparing them for the task of keeping the world’s 200 billion-plus lines of Cobol code running well into the future.

While some have pushed for phasing out Cobol applications, this is a task that is much easier said than done. Government’s current budget and regulatory reality, which is increasingly adverse to costly and risky projects, simply cannot tolerate large-scale IT projects that aim to replace or rewrite an unfathomable amount of Cobol code. Moreover, with new advances in application modernization technology, agencies are no longer limited to the options of rewriting or replacing their Cobol applications.

What many agencies have found is that they can reuse viable Cobol applications and simply migrate them onto their platform of choice – whether that’s onto a distributed system like Windows or onto a less costly part of a mainframe running Linux. With Cobol migrations, made possible by application modernization technology, agencies can realize in-year cost savings and Web-enabled capabilities without the huge costs, risks and project durations of rewrite or replacement strategies.

Much like Edison’s light bulb, whose design has been perfected upon over time, Cobol code continues to evolve to meet the cost-efficiency needs and technological demands of future generations. New application modernization technologies are driving this evolution, enabling agencies to breathe new life into their legacy Cobol applications. Today, Cobol can live seamlessly on mobile, service-oriented architecture and even cloud platforms, environments that would have been unthinkable not so long ago.

When Cobol finally arrives at the Smithsonian, we all owe a tip of our hat to the original disruptive technology. In spite of the Cobol naysayers, I believe that we can expect to see our old friend around for a very long time to come.

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