The programming language COBOL is a nuisance, something everyone wants to get rid of; however, I’m about to advise you to learn it. It might be a gold mine.
The IT world is a fast paced one where obsolescence is the rule and where things evolve so fast that any person who wants to understand it has to continuously learn and train. Languages, methodologies and technologies keep on changing, evolving to make programming easier, safer more robust and above all, faster. As to every rule, there is one exception.
In 1959, convinced that the English language would be more suitable for programming than machine code or the assembly language, Grace Hopper creates the first ever human-readable programming language that would survive for over fifty years: COBOL
COBOL, 55 years old and still in its youth, not ever thinking about retirement, has become a nuisance, something everyone wants to get rid of but no one has the courage to try.
Are we ready to replace COBOL?
Nowadays, 80% of financial transactions are made through COBOL programs and most of those programs have been written decades ago and have proven to be reliable, effective and efficient. To top it all most companies which are still using it have invested a lot of money in those systems and if it is not broken, why fix it?
So why would one want to change them? Well, it’s not Java. COBOL was created in an era where IT didn’t have the meaning it has today. A program was mainly designed to replace simple repetitive tasks such as retrieving data from a database, performing a couple of operations and generating a report or updating some other data. Today’s programs have to present a front-end to thousands of users, go through different layers of security, logic and quick data retrieving before accessing the back-end to ultimately alter data and send some information back to the user. Alternatively, a program can be a tool to design objects and buildings, communicate with your friends, frag your opponents, enhance your reality, you name it… The whole philosophy behind the conception of programs has changed so much in the last two decades that having such an outdated technology that almost no one knows anymore represents a potential danger. Only few people learn COBOL these days and even though those systems are not supposed to evolve much, there is always maintenance to be performed. But are we ready to replace it just yet?
Fast, robust and future-proof language
COBOL has been on the brink of death for years but its presence overall hasn’t changed. Not only are the cost to migrate from one technology to another huge but the choice of the replacing technology itself is a million dollars question. What better than COBOL to perform typical COBOL operations? While not designed to be an Object Oriented Language such as Java or C#, COBOL has slowly adopted some of their aspects, extending itself and its functionalities to a point where almost everything is possible. Everything with the exception maybe of creating user friendly or good looking Human-Machine Interface. In that matter, nothing has changed much since Hopper’s time. Many of us still remember the frustration of spending hours to get a simple screen with a couple modifiable fields and those who still use them must be dreaming every day to replace F5 and F6 by simple buttons…
But that was never the point; the point was to have a fast, robust and future-proof language.
COBOLs main contenders
The discussion is still opened as to which language could replace COBOL but here are some pros and cons to the main contenders:
– Java is easy to learn, well spread and has a huge community of developers already but is rather slow compared to other languages despite the existence of some specialized compilers and massive improvements in the last few versions. It is also arguably still in its youth and the yearly evolutions and changes to the language don’t play in its favor. Not to mention the recent security issues.
– C++ is fast, flexible and robust but it takes time to learn and understand and has what is maybe its biggest flow, potential memory leaks. Something COBOL and Java programmers have, almost, never heard of. By conception, it offers a lot of freedom to developers but that also implies few ready-to-use components and thus it’s less cost-worthy.
Let’s say that one day we manage to find a clear winner, another major problem will suddenly emerge. COBOL was made to perform all kind of operations in one block but we have learned throughout the years that modularity is the key to success. So if we replace COBOL itself by another language, we will also need to have databases and SQL, a front end and HTML, most likely a Business Process Management Software to externalize workflows… Basically, replacing COBOL programs means creating whole new ones.
The ultimate piece of advice
While it is possible to replace this aging language, this comes at such an extremely high cost that we can anticipate its presence in at least the next twenty years which brings us to the ultimate piece of advice of this paper: if you have the opportunity to learn it and enough motivation to write white on black interfaces, go for it. The pool of competent COBOL programmers is getting smaller by the day and the demand doesn’t change, meaning that this personal investment might reveal itself a gold mine.