Why COBOL Still Matters After 60 Years

In the world of DevOps, the Agile Manifesto and countless other application delivery frameworks, one has to wonder how an anachronism such as the programming language COBOL (common business-oriented language) has managed to remain relevant. After all, COBOL has its roots back in the 1940s, and was built upon Rear Admiral Grace Hopper’s work on the FLOW-MATIC programming language (a text-based programming language). Hopper, who worked as a technical consultant on the FLOW-MATIC project, is sometimes referred to as the grandmother of COBOL.

Last century, COBOL quickly became one of the most used programming languages in the world and it is still quite popular, claiming more lines of code in active use today than any other programming language. It offered a huge advantage over the other programming languages of the era. One that can be summed up as portability. From the outset, COBOL was the first popular language designed to be operating system-agnostic. In other words, it could be run on numerous different systems with little change made to the source code. What’s more, as a text based language, COBOL used English words and phrases to make it easier to understand and also made it somewhat self-documenting.

While much of the programming world has moved onto JavaScript, Python, PHP and even C and C#, COBOL can not be ignored. It continues to evolve and remains relevant, even in the age of the cloud. Simply put, it still has some chops to it. Take for example:

  • COBOL is a Language of Business: It is still used by the majority of major banks and insurers. The language can be found in widespread use across numerous other sectors, such as retail, healthcare, government and automotive. For most of those businesses, no other programming language has displaced COBOL and it remains as the back-office business language of choice.
  • COBOL is Extremely Portable: From the outset, COBOL was designed to be operating system agnostic, meaning the same applications developed under it could run unchanged across many different platforms. That allows COBOL developers to focus on building applications, instead of worrying about the intricacies of operating systems. That fuels DevOps and agile by allowing developers to test and deploy across a wide range of supported platforms.
  • COBOL Continues to Evolve: It supports and integrates with numerous platforms and works with operating environments such as Linux, mainframes, Windows and UNIX. What’s more, COBOL also integrates with Java, C#, Docker containers, mobile, .NET and JVM as well as Azure and AWS cloud environments. It can be used today to build cloud, containerized and managed code apps. And continues to evolve to meet the challenges of the future.
  • COBOL is Easy to Learn and Understand: It was created with the objective of making it easier for programmers to work with computers and each other. That objective has translated into a language easy to learn and understand by using English phrases and commands. The readability aspects of COBOL make it self-documenting, along with an ease of use not found in other languages. What’s more, the language costs less to maintain and its readability means it is easier to maintain.
  • COBOL is Future-Proof: It has continually evolved and now works with industry-standard IDEs, meaning programs can code with COBOL using familiar tools that support teams. COBOL developers are able to use the language alongside contemporaries, without having to forgo the latest IT tooling and processes.

While many in the DevOps world sell COBOL short, there are many reasons why the language remains popular today. It continues to meet the needs of business and embraces many of the changes the cloud and new techniques can throw at it. COBOL is even now embracing APIs, micro services, the cloud and distributed platforms, making it a worthwhile tool for business today.

Frank Ohlhorst @FJO_Writes_Tech

Frank is an award-winning technology journalist and IT industry analyst, with extensive experience as a business consultant, editor, author, and blogger. Frank works with both technology startups and established technology ventures, helping them to build channel programs, launch products, validate product quality, create marketing materials, author case studies, eBooks and white papers.

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