The persistence of COBOL: why a 60-year old language is still in demand

It's not often in technology that something lasts more than a few years, let alone six decades as is the case with the COBOL programming language. We look at why the language is still so important and whether its going to fade away any time soon.

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Within the realm of technology, one thing that could generally considered a static rule of thumb is that things are constantly changing. Innovation, especially in the cloud era, is constantly occurring and hard to keep track of, as one trend displaces the last in an ever-quickening game of technological leapfrog. This is equally true when it comes to software development, as cloud native organisations chase seamless CI/CD pipelines, DevOps, and agile development practices.

Bucking this trend, though, is the COBOL programming language, which — despite being developed in the late 1950s — still fulfills a fundamental role for many organisations running transaction-based legacy business applications. The aging language is still remarkably pervasive, to the point where news reports surface every few years denouncing its existence within business-critical systems while highlighting the various issues that COBOL code presents to organisations and developers.

The persistence of COBOL has been illustrated recently as the Coronavirus pandemic puts increased strain on wide range of IT infrastructure. The programming language was highlighted as a major issue in the US government's $2.2 trillion CARES stimulus program and within the processing of increased unemployment claims, with state agencies blaming delays in cheque handouts on COBOL, and in particular a lack of available talent (which is often a real sticking point). IBM even sought to address this issue by teaming up with the Linux Foundation's Open Mainframe Project by launching a free COBOL training program as well as a technical forum allowing COBOL programmers to provide free advice and expertise during the outbreak.

While this may seem to paint a picture of a hopeless old language that is unnecessarily stifling innovation, the persistence of COBOL is more nuanced that it may seem. There are many relevant factors that contribute to why organisations might want to keep COBOL around and it's not just as simple as gutting and sending it into oblivion. Although that's not to say that there aren't some serious issues with the language — and the culture that surrounds it — that need to be addressed.

Why is COBOL still so prevalent?

COBOL was initially developed in 1959 as a business-orientated programming language that ran almost exclusively on large mainframe computers and served as an incredibly useful tool in modernising what were often paper-based business processes. The language was commonly used for transaction-based processing and continues to power many finance and administrative systems used by banks and the public sector.

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