Smart Innovation Evolves. Happy 60th Birthday COBOL

Good ideas never go out of style

Genuinely ground-breaking, disruptive technology innovations come from moments of opportunity. The printing press came from Caxton’s initiative to produce larger quantities of written material to the court. The automobile was an attempt to provide flexibility and mobility to the post-industrial age, while the telephone came along to offer a step-change in communications to the late Victorian era. Much of these sought more immediacy for the user, greater productivity or fluidity in the task at hand. All to achieve an aim that was both commercially viable but also proving invaluable to many.

These great innovations of their timeshare a common characteristic, which is that they have all stood the test of time. Sure the device you use to make a call has changed beyond recognition, but you still make a call. Most printing is digital and few of us read printed copy nowadays, but the printed word, and the language used is an everyday object. And nobody needs anyone to run ahead of them waving a flag when they get behind the wheel of their car.

An International IT Language of Change

Another commonplace technology, COBOL, was also born of opportunistic necessity. Against a post-war scramble to modernize commerce and economic progress, the language was designed specifically for business; for a brighter future. Created out of a US Department of Defense initiative to assist and improve data processing, COBOL’s readability, simplicity and suitability for large-scale commercial business applications has made it indispensable. Since then, no technology has replaced it, because nothing has proved to be as good at the task.

Like English, COBOL is ubiquitous. Over 20 years ago, Gartner reported that 80% of the world’s business ran on COBOL with over 200 billion lines of code and 5 billion lines more being written annually. Nobody has tried a recount since, so it is probably fair to assume the numbers remain significant.

Hand in glove with its most common sidekick, CICS (which itself celebrates its 50thanniversary this year), COBOL has kept the world economy going by running the world’s most important business and government systems ever since, typically running on IBM mainframes (another idea initially developed during the same era as COBOL) as the server of choice.

Like English, COBOL has adapted and expanded. It has changed – and been changed – to meet new demands and support innovative technologies. It still runs everything from old school batch processes to back-office support for funky mobile apps. It has adopted new standards, new paradigms, and even borrowed some syntax from other languages. It has evolved to stay relevant. About 95 percent of ATM swipes still use COBOL code, Reuters reported in April.

Built for a bright future

Five key characteristics that underpinned COBOL’s success, then and now, give COBOL its unique value and staying power. Take a look.

  • Business Focus. As the ‘B’ in the name suggests, COBOL was designed with business in mind. Its strong data typing, file handling and arithmetic accuracy (to 38 digits) meant it was soon put to work for some of the world’s biggest, most complex enterprise systems across many vertical industries. Oftentimes using CICS and mainframe resiliency, COBOL apps quickly became synonymous with reliability, speed, and scalability. To this day, nothing really comes close.
  • COBOL’s history provides a rich array of pre-built value for those enhancing core applications. The structured, reusable language and data formats make leveraging COBOL functionality simple, while COBOL’s careful evolution has avoided any major redesigns, meaning applications remain highly compatible across versions and releases.
  • Ease of Use. COBOL is arguably the easiest of all computer languages. Testimonials from commerce and academia claim COBOL competency can be reached in a matter of hours, while many younger IT professionals are learning it too, thanks to its inclusion within familiar, contemporary IDEs and toolchains.
  • Relentless innovation from IBM, Micro Focus and others has seen COBOL evolve to continue to be contemporary and forward-looking. Supporting object orientation, APIs, REST/JSON, Cloud, JVM integration and containers makes it the right choice to support digital innovation
  • Machine-independence. Stipulated in the original requirements, COBOL’s portability means COBOL systems compile and execute the same across z/OS, AIX, Linux, AS/400 and even in the Cloud. Market demand and vendor support assured (and continues to assure) COBOL is available on every leading platform: a safe bet for future strategy.

Just as the mainframe has enjoyed a five-decade era of continued evolution and development, the business language of choice has maintained the very same trajectory, supported by significant investments from the de-facto COBOL curators, IBM and Micro Focus, to meet the needs of an evolving commercial world.

What They Said

A number of commentators in the industry sharing their views about COBOL’s success and bright future.

“COBOL is 60-years young.  The language that powers the mainframes that run the world is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s. With the presence of new digital pressures, the mainframe and COBOL are back at the forefront for the modern developer enabling innovation and transformation,” Steven Dickens, IBM LinuxONE.

“With millions of global transactions processed every second, COBOL delivers adaptability and performance, outpacing many of its modern rivals.  While some would question the use of continued use COBOL, I see a language that’s quietly powered six decades of economic growth” Tom “Captain COBOL” Ross, IBM.

“Did you book summer travel with your favorite airline or hotel chain?  Manage your money at your local bank or investment firm?  Or perhaps you paid your property tax, shipped a parcel to a friend or made an electronic purchase through an online retailer?  For the last 60 years, the COBOL language has powered countless core business systems that underpin our everyday economy. The next 60 years for this legendary language are even brighter with new opportunities to fuel IT transformation across every industry”.  Ed Airey, Micro Focus.

In its Diamond anniversary, COBOL seems to be shining as bright as ever. Diamonds are forever? It is certainly looking that way.

Learn more here.

Editors Note

This blog was written by Derek Britton from MicroFocus. Follow Derek on Twitter for more insight

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