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How COBOL Persists: People, Process, and Technology

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How COBOL Persists: People, Process, and Technology

Even in the face of newer methodologies, COBOL still remains. Read on for insight on how it has managed to stay relevant and mainstream.

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Revelation

Over the years, I've seen technology trends come and go. Some to change our lives forever, some to disappear without a trace. However, in the most successful cases, the technology has become mainstream thanks to refined processes for its use, and a tidal wave of enthusiastic, skilled practitioners. No-one is scared of their mobile interfaces anymore, and Smart TVs are easier to operate.

In the same way that devices have become commonplace, a focus on programming has come to the forefront. However, even programming languages come and go with the times. Remember when PERL was all the rage? Ruby on Rails? Flash? Now languages like C#, Python, and probably the best example, JavaScript, are popular and simple to learn. Meanwhile, there is one programming language that, despite the claims of its impending demise, has stood the test of time, and continues to evolve for the modern workforce-COBOL. In my ignorance, I questioned whether what was clearly a ground-breaking innovation decades ago was going to be able to remain relevant in 2018. After looking further into things, I found that my doubt was completely unfounded.

An Age-Old Tradition

It was only very recently the last year or so that I learned about COBOL technology. COBOL, the Common Business-Oriented Language, was developed nearly 60 years ago by a small group of computer professionals called the Conference on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL) that included Grace Hopper, the "mother of COBOL", and Jean Sammet. The main objective of the committee was to develop a standard business-oriented language. COBOL was ground-breaking because it could run on more than one manufacturer's computer. Because of its ease of use and portability, and because the US Department of Defense required COBOL on all its computer system purchases, COBOL quickly became one of the most used business programming languages in the world.

Interestingly, as I looked at the phenomenal success and continued pervasiveness of COBOL it became clear that it was founded on strong technology, clearly, but also that the processes built to leverage it were simple and clear, focused on business outcomes, modelling business processes; and the people side was taken care of because COBOL was easy to learn - its English-like syntax was designed with ease-of-use in mind. Little wonder it's one of the few genuine constants in the IT world.

Evolution

Looking across the three scales of people, processes, and technology, the facts made it clear. I'll start with technology - after all, that's what COBOL is.

Technology

From what I read initially, I heard People often complain or worry about businesses, banks, and government agencies using and the pejorative "legacy" code label.

While the concept of COBOL is from 1959, today's incarnation of COBOL is modern and far from what I (or anyone else) should consider legacy. It possesses the same contemporary look and feel of any other language, works within standard development IDEs like Visual Studio and Eclipse, supports the latest releases of enterprise technology such as Cloud, Mobile, Managed Code, can live inside a Virtualised or Containerized environment, can support web services, object orientation and an API model. In short, whatever you are doing today, your COBOL systems will support it.

Moreover, COBOL still does all the things it's known for, precise and rapid calculations, managing massive amounts of data, precision and accuracy and reliability that the enterprise systems it powers rely on. In 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that each day 80 percent of the world's business transactions rely on COBOL. COBOL is contemporary and is strongly entrenched in businesses around the world.

Mike Madden, development service manager with the British women's clothing firm JD Williams, was asked why they still use COBOL on their mainframes. His reply: "Simple - we haven't found anything faster than COBOL for batch-processing," Madden says. "We use other languages, such as Java, for customer-facing websites, but COBOL is for order processing. The code matches business logic, unlike other languages." According to IBM's Charles Chu, "...there are 250bn lines of COBOL code working well worldwide. Why would companies replace systems that are working well?"

Unsurprisingly the well-known Computerworld survey from a few years back found that 64% of respondents stated that their organization or systems used COBOL, and 48% used it significantly. More recently a survey by Micro Focus revealed the top modernization priorities, which reported;

  • 85% of COBOL applications are strategic
  • 65% rank knowledge transfer as the critical skills issue
  • 52% of COBOL developers are using Agile practices

Which brings me on to the other two important criteria: processes and people.

Process

The modern era of computing has witnessed a significant shift in how applications are being brought to market. The Agile era is upon us and statistics show anything up to 80%+ adoption of the modern "DevOps" process of building applications.

It begged the question; does that preclude old-school approaches like COBOL?

COBOL technology, in its modern incarnation, is a modern language and works alongside and within agile and DevOps development practices. Indeed, COBOL's pervasiveness, ease-of-use, and integration with contemporary toolchains make it an ideal candidate for DevOps-style process improvement, whether on the mainframe or in a distributed environment.

...and People

Another major concern with COBOL is the fact that many of the programmers are aging and retiring. A Computerworld survey found that more than half of COBOL programmers in organizations surveyed were over the age of 45. Fast forward a few years and the 2017 mainframe survey by BMC talked about a resource pool half of whom were under the age of 50, suggesting a significant shift in the demographic of the COBOL IT shop.

In 2013 Micro Focus collected research on the lack of COBOL courses being offered in academia. Shockingly, despite the fact that 71% of university respondents believing that today's businesses will continue to rely on COBOL code and applications for the next 10+ years, only 27% offer IT courses that include COBOL programming as part of their curriculum. More recently, evidence suggests a change of attitude. IBM has been working to keep mainframe skills alive in younger generations with its "Master the Mainframe" contest, as well as formal degree programs. Micro Focus has furnished a group of over 300 academic partners that teach students COBOL with contemporary COBOL technologies. In fact, Micro Focus taught a class at the most recent SHARE Academy and also spoke on the topic of skills at the SHARE Sacramento event. In his recent blog post Derek Britton, Director of Strategy and Enablement at Micro Focus, asserted that, "a combination of attitude, motivation, and support... technology is the key to overcoming any skills concern."

Revolution

In my short time learning about the COBOL world I am astonished more isn't said about its power and prevalence in the IT world. If the success of a technical innovation can be measured across three axes of people, process, and technology, then the scores for COBOL in 2018 remain very impressive. Micro Focus remains committed to COBOL, its pervasiveness should be no surprise to any of us.

Learn More About COBOL

If any of this information about COBOL is news to you, I urge you to learn more.

Share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment, or find @MicroFocusCDMS on Twitter, or create a post on the Micro Focus COBOL Community page.

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Topics:
cobol ,modernization ,mainframe ,visual cobol ,legacy ,enterprise devops ,devops

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