COBOL Will Live Forever

Thu, 7 Mar 2013

The COBOL programming language is one of the oldest computer languages in existence, yet it's still widely used in extremely significant ways: The average person on the street has nearly a hundred interactions per week with things running COBOL. Even the New York Stock Exchange currently uses numerous mainframe computers running COBOL programs (although various efforts are presently underway to reduce that); and the number of daily COBOL transactions made around the world each day is actually greater than the number of hits all of the websites on the Internet receive.

COBOL is an acronym that stands for "Common Business Oriented Language" and it was created in 1959 by a group of programmers known as the "Conference on Data Systems Languages." In the late 50s, the Department of Defense requested that a business language be created so certain features of businesses could be automated, and by 1960 the COBOL-60 language was released to the public. By 1965 COBOL had become highly popular and was in widespread use, but due to radical modifications of the language by various companies over the years, COBOL had to be made more compatible between various machines and so the American National Standards Institute stepped in to create a standardized version in 1968, which is now known as ANS-COBOL (American National Standard COBOL). The ANSI institute has since made more modifications to the standardized version of COBOL, primarily releasing an object-oriented version for modernization purposes.

A woman by the name of Grace Hopper was largely responsible for the development of COBOL. Grace Hopper was a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy and also a pioneer in the field of computer science. She designed the first ever compiler for a programming language and is now known as the Grandmother of COBOL. In 1949 she joined a computer corporation called Eckert-Mauchly and initially worked as a research mathematician, but soon she was helping develop the UNIVAC I computer. After the Remington Rand corporation took over the company, Admiral Hopper began writing compilers. Her first compiler was known as the "A-0" and others such as MATH-MATIC, ARITH-MATIC, and FLOW-MATIC compilers soon followed. When she began working on the COBOL language, it was primarily a combination of her FLOW-MATIC compiler and an IBM language called COMTRAN. Admiral Hopper was the first person to realize computer languages should be closer to English language instructions for readability and to speed up coding time, rather than using opaque and tedious machine code (1s and 0s that the central processing unit can understand). For over ten years Admiral Hopper was the main director of the Navy Programming Languages Group and in 1969 she was named "man of the year" by the Data Processing Management Association. In 1991 she was given the prestigious National Medal of Technology. Grace Hopper's motto was always, "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission."

COBOL has been around for so long many people associate it with old mainframe computers, fluorescent green computer screens, core dumps, and obsolete technology, but COBOL still retains many advantages for solving business related problems and has been highly modernized since 1959. COBOL is a solid dependable language that relies on useful batch-processing functions and due to COBOL's long variable names it is basically "self-documenting," which is highly useful for programmers. Despite news articles occasionally announcing the death of COBOL, it is still ideal for accounting and business transactions and it won't be going away anytime soon.

Traditional COBOL code is characterized by long variable names being written in all capital letters. Here is an example of a very brief COBOL program:

PROGRAM-ID. ShortProgram.
    DISPLAY "Hello, World!"

There are certain drawbacks to COBOL as a programming language (it's not particularly suited to interactive or World Wide Web applications, for example) but mainly it suffers from extreme disrespect by software developers since they see it as being a nearly obsolete language. Many programmers wouldn't be caught dead composing a line of COBOL code or even using a COBOL compiler since they view it as harking back to the Dark Ages of computer technology and development. Nevertheless many COBOL programmers are needed by reputable companies to maintain existing code and even extend it in some cases. Computer Science departments also see COBOL as outdated and inferior when compared to more modern software languages and rarely offer COBOL classes. But if you are a programmer looking for a job, you should realize that a huge amount of COBOL code has been written since 1959 and programmers are desperately needed to maintain and even add to what is presently in use. Numerous financial institutions and stock companies use COBOL daily and most companies don't want the high costs involved with re-platforming their old programs and would much rather hire legitimate COBOL programmers to maintain what they already have (experts estimate roughly 250 billion COBOL source code lines are in use today; and about 15 billion lines are added each year! Furthermore, about seventy percent of ALL transactional systems around the world are written in the COBOL language.)

Still COBOL programmers are rather hard to find and many companies are searching for them right now. So if you are a programmer and would like to have more job security, make plans to get some COBOL training as soon as possible. COBOL will live forever.