Why programmers still love COBOL

Susan R. Jones

The programming language COBOL conjures up pictures of thin ties, white shirts, spinning tape drives, and all of the glory and suffering of the mainframe period. This only can make perception because the language initially appeared in 1959 and it was a person of the dominant ways to code in the 1960s.

Now, it can be often forgotten, but not for the reason that it truly is disappeared. Other languages for other roles grabbed the spotlight, driving the technological know-how increase as computers proliferated. COBOL didn’t fade away, even though it was basically eclipsed by the explosive expansion of the other languages and systems.

Without a doubt, individuals who work with COBOL in 2022 say the desire is increased than at any time. It may possibly by no means seize as significantly notice as the languages used to, say, develop applications for billions of smartphones, but it has a secure and gradually developing property in the corporate workplaces wherever it started.

Micro Concentrate, a company that writes a great deal of COBOL code, sponsored a survey operate by Vanson Bourne in February 2022 that estimated there could be a lot more than 775 billion to 850 billion traces of COBOL code running at this time. Back in 1997, a research by Gartner put the number at 200 billion. It may well not be the exact progress on a percentage basis as languages these as Python or Swift, but it truly is ample to maintain a good deal of programmers interested.

“It’s an IT backbone for most of the Western world.” said Ed Airey, product or service internet marketing director for COBOL at Micro Focus Worldwide. “Most of the factors that we just frankly acquire for granted each working day, like being capable to just take cash out of the lender applying an ATM or ebook an airline ticket for vacation or get an insurance policies quote, count upon COBOL running quietly in the background.”

COBOL’s quite a few updates

The language working currently is extremely various from the a person programmers encoded in punch playing cards. Although a great deal of the previous framework and design and style nevertheless remain—backwards compatibility is essential—many of the new versions are up-to-date to simplify performing with all of the other languages and protocols applied these days.

The improvements have tracked the mainstream of laptop or computer science, lagging guiding a little bit, but only by a couple yrs. For instance, object-oriented COBOL appeared in 2002, and IEEE 754 benchmarks for arithmetic joined the language in 2014.

“It’s nonetheless here mostly simply because all the stuff that men and women designed a long time back and can even now run currently,” said Scot Nielsen, director of product administration for COBOL at Micro Focus. “You never have to throw it away and commence once more. You can establish on prime of it.”

Certainly, lots of preferred platforms don’t do a great career of guaranteeing that code carries on to run longer than a couple years. Apple, for instance, provided a PowerPC emulator known as Rosetta in its working technique when it initially switched to the x86 architecture in 2006, but it dropped it with variation 10.7 of MacOS in 2011.

The COBOL community is devoted to preventing this form of dilemma. The code can now operate very easily on desktops or even smartphones. There are containerized variations that make deploying the cloud simpler.

Open-supply assignments these as CobolScript let you operate COBOL in a browser or a Node.js software by changing it. GnuCOBOL creates indigenous executables with LLVM that can operate in many various environments. The light-weight virtual machine GraalVM is a fantastic basis for linking COBOL with other languages, including Java and Haskell. Visual Studio has a plugin identified as Visible COBOL for linking .NET and other Microsoft technologies.

Programmers concentrating on the core language

When the group celebrates preserving speed with modern day standards, it at times frets that the path is not always clean or brief. Some grouse that the COBOL 2002 conventional, for illustration, was never ever completely carried out for the reason that there was not enough perceived demand from customers for the new thoughts. Other people will not like that COBOL 2014 manufactured some big attributes optional. 

Certainly, developers say that they discover the greatest answer is to focus on the core language and use the best techniques and idioms that have been prevalent from the beginning. The new features are pleasant and usually practical, but they ought to be employed with care and the knowing that they can get some time to achieve maturity.

“Individuals that are versed in COBOL and have labored with it in legacy systems pretty considerably stick to the procedural-sort COBOL,” said Jon Stahl, a programmer at Sammons Economic Group. “But if you have any individual that won’t have knowledge in COBOL and they’re expert in C#, when they change in excess of to accomplishing COBOL, they’re going to do it in a C# design. It’s going to seem additional like your object-oriented–style programming.”

The array is not just minimal to fashion. Much more and far more COBOL assignments are taking advantage of equipment that simplify linking the COBOL code with other languages. It really is rather easy to start with a COBOL challenge and hyperlink it to Microsoft libraries and languages via Visual Studio. There are also a variety of enhancements that bring contemporary details formats this sort of as JSON to COBOL to simplify the operate of integration.

“It just pains me to see corporations rewrite aged code when they could choose advantage of what fashionable COBOL could do with it,” said Bob England, a COBOL developer and president of England Technological Providers. “It can be foolish to speak about the age of code. Logic doesn’t deteriorate. Until the business policies transform, that code is as good as the working day it was born.”

Finding out COBOL

One particular key problem for the COBOL neighborhood is a lack of aid and interest from the college-centered laptop science local community. There are number of courses in universities, and numerous programmers possibly understand on their personal with textbooks or through some impartial programs.

The rise of the on the web educational market is changing this. For occasion, Coursera lists 35 COBOL-related classes, and Udemy gives 98. Official integration with the accredited university curriculum is just not essential any more. These options are more flexible than courses at a brick-and-mortar university.

Some of the COBOL distributors also nurture new talent. A single put to just take a to start with phase in COBOL at no price tag is microfocus.com/en-us/solutions/visible-cobol-own-version/overview.

“You even now need to have to have a qualifications in Java, .Net, or a modern-day-working day technology stack, but understanding COBOL would not only established you apart from the subject,” said Micro Focus’ Airey. “It would possibly put you in a placement to command a really aggressive income.”

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