2020 Report Card: COBOL (still) Rocks…

It would be fair to say we have had a difficult year. No individual has kept their routine, no family has avoided some upheaval or distress, no neighbourhood is without a sad tale, no business has survived unscathed – all of them affected by the most unpredictable phenomenon of modern times. 

Against this backdrop, some vendors have changed their game, some suppliers have reinvented themselves, and some organizations have shifted gears to meet changing needs. And at the heart of all of this, banks still lend money, insurers still insure, retailers sell (albeit online), logistics businesses still ship packages, software still runs, mainframes still run the economy, and CICS and COBOL are invariably processing the transactions and data. 

Despite all that change, some things remain reassuringly familiar. 

This is not the first time you have heard me talk about COBOL. We know that many so-called experts got it wrong when they put COBOL in the spotlight for recent IT system issues. 

We also heard that – interestingly – as everyone rushes towards a hybrid future in which trusted technology such as the mainframe rubs shoulders, quite happily, with newer platforms such as Cloud, that COBOL actually does not mind or care where it runs. Which of course makes our friend Steven Dickens happy too because that means Z, LinuxONE, Linux, AIX and all shapes and sizes of Cloud.

We also know that thanks to the impressive investments and innovation from those clever engineering groups at IBM and Micro Focus, and the work of the standards bodies, and some other vendors who support or build on top of those innovations, that the future of COBOL is as a first-class citizen in the digital economy. 

But we all knew that, right? At least most of us do, and all of us should. 

Perhaps what we didn’t know quite so much, is just how widespread the positive sentiment would be; just how much support the language had. While I attempted to convey it earlier this year, I was equally pleasantly surprised… 

Whose side are you on?

Let’s visit with some old friends for our first illustration. The mainframe community SHARE sought input from a variety of sources in the excellent piece – COBOL, a cornerstone of the mainframe You can be pretty sure that if IBM and Micro Focus articulate the value of COBOL technology, there’s something in it. Further articles cemented the view.  

SHARE’s popularity has remained for as long as COBOL. In other geographies, the Guide SHARE Europe (GSE) organization is also enjoying a very strong period of popularity. GSE’s take on the COBOL situation was to commission a session on COBOL as part of the GSE Virtual Conference in 2020 (entitled “Virtually Unstoppable”). I was honoured to give a presentation on the language (“COBOL in its 7th decade”), and delighted to see so many join the session. 

The Open Mainframe Project, the open source community for the mainframe, entered the fray earlier this year. With support from members, it established a new COBOL training sub-group, headed by IBM engineers. Their aim is to establish an “open” COBOL training environment for those who need it. In addition, the Open Mainframe Project also kick-started a related, but separate Working Group for COBOL, which aims to promote the viability and vitality of the language with factually accurate information about usage and value. Spearheaded by experienced COBOL practitioners and commentators including Reg Harbeck and Chairman Cameron Seay (who collaborated recently on this excellent mainframe and COBOL training article here), the group meets regularly and is looking to survey and communicate COBOL’s under-estimated usage and value to those who – let’s face it – might otherwise not hear the truth.

Check out the keynote discussion from the recent OMP Summit, which discusses the new COBOL Working group. Also, take a look at the video interview the Working Group held with popular open source frontman, Swapnil Bhartiya.

Making the conversation truly mainstream, however, needs broader press interest. Therefore, it was also very encouraging to see big names such as Forbes and ZDNet carry an upbeat perspective on the COBOL discussion this year. Forbes’ article “COBOL language: call it a comeback?” was as insightful as it was  upbeat about its credentials, the title rather critiquing the naysayers.  Meanwhile ZDNet’s “Where’s my check?” directly tackled the confusion over COBOL’s part to play in state government IT issues. Elsewhere COBOL featured regularly – dozens of separate articles – and even made into the top 10 computer language searches on Twitter, according to the IEEE. 

Won’t Get Fooled Again?

As a very recent and fantastically searched piece entitled itself: “Why COBOL will never die”. It is a timely reminder to those who might predict or even encourage the demise of technology. Chances are they would have you buy something else, from them. They are set to gain from the new investment you would have to make to throw away something that is working to replace it with something that might not. If you want to know how tremendously unreliable throwing away perfectly good systems can be, listen to this webinar.

Perhaps in 2021 we can debate things that matter, and use facts to guide our way. It will make a pleasant change. Last year, I called COBOL the bedrock of digital transformation. A year later, and a tricky year at that, I see no reason to change that perspective.

Editors Note

This blog post was penned by Derek Britton from MicroFocus, I highly suggest you follow Derek on Twitter and engage with him on LinkedIn to stay current on what is going on in the world of COBOL

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