Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL), first developed in 1959, has become the Rambo of the programming world. No matter how old they get, they both still seem to single-handedly get the job done long after their expiration date. In the first of a two part article for IT World Canada, Brian Bloom explores why COBOL has survived in business as long as it has amidst today’s constantly changing technology, as well as what attempts are being made to modernize COBOL without throwing it away.
One major reason why COBOL has enjoyed such a long life span is because so many millions of dollars and man-hours have been invested into its upkeep. Even if better technology than COBOL is available, it becomes a question of how much better it is at producing a desired benefit than COBOL. If the technology is only marginally better, then it is not worth the effort to upheave an established system that has been in use for upwards of decades.
That underscores another reason why COBOL is still in heavy use—COBOL is pretty darn good at what it does. Old does not immediately mean antiquated, especially in the case of COBOL, which in many cases just needs to be able to take data, crunch numbers, and print out reports in the first place. Still, attempts to modernize COBOL have been made, such as isCOBOL, which is discussed through quotations collected by Bloom:
“The isCOBOL graphical terminal allows you to take an existing COBOL application that was written to run on terminals in the last 30, 40 years, however many years COBOL has been around,” says Lubin, “[and]now you can run that on a graphical window that at first looks like a terminal, just like the original application, but can then be modernized by adding a menu bar, a toolbar, a status bar, push buttons—you name it—mouse support. And it can be done at whatever pace the developer chooses.”
Weaver says tools like this certainly have some value to COBOL developers. “If you’re having people who are programming using modern development tools for their other work…to have the same programmer interfaces to COBOL makes as a lot of sense rather than having them use some junky old tools for the COBOL part.”
There are predictions that COBOL will continue to be used for at least another decade and a half, which is not so surprising at all when the incentives to switch are not always very strong. Just like Rambo, as long as COBOL stays good at what it does, it will always find a place in the world, no matter how much the landscape changes.