November 30, 2016
This just in: Generalissimo Cobol is not dead
A favorite running gag on the most antique Saturday Night Live shows was Chevy Chase reading the fake news. With each broadcast he'd repeat this joke: "Generalissimo Franciso Franco is still dead." Same result, week after week. A situation with a lot in common with COBOL's current fortunes. Despite what people think they know about it, the Common Business Oriented Language still props up a vast swath of the business data across the world.
Nothing has changed with COBOL's fortunes since we last visited this topic with a podcast in 2014. During that year's spring, the NPR Planet Money radio team posted a show that blamed COBOL for the slow pace of money-changing in clearinghouse transfers. The mistaken report was like fingering English for the outcome of the Presidential election. Yes, the COBOL code in banks turns the IT cranks. The result is not the fault of the tool, but how it has been used. Yes, English was used in the 2016 campaign. [Insert joke about Twittering here.]
Our COBOL correspondent Bruce Hobbs pulled this story back into the light this week. He pointed to an article on the HackerRank blog, examining COBOL's not-dead-yet status once again. If you like numbers, the article included these above. Its still a language that supports 80 percent of all point of sale transactions and routes health care to 60 million patients a day.
To be fair, one of the sources of that graphic is the company still selling COBOL, Microfocus. But Gartner is also cited, an impartial consulting giant. In the NPR show the reporters interviewed an exec from Fiserv, a vendor who might have known better; they made some of their fortunes selling Spectrum/3000 for credit unions.
In the HackerRank piece, the author quotes an article from 20 years ago that surveyed why COBOL has held on so long.
COBOL does the 4 essential business tasks better than most modern languages today:
The capability for heterogenous “record-structure” data
The capability for decimal arithmetic
The capability for convenient report generation
The capability for accessing and manipulating masses of data (typically made up of heterogenous data structure).
“COBOL is either good or adequate in all 4 (except for database access and GUI construction, they were designed into the language from the outset), whereas the COBOL replacement languages, like Visual Basic and Java are good at few if any of them,” notable software engineer Robert L. Glass says.
Since the COBOL community's average age is 55, and the estimated 2 million IT pros who knew the language in 2004 declined by 50 percent since then, the technology that's as old as any Chevy Chase joke on SNL will see a new spotlight soon. Even in replacement, old skills will be in demand. Technology reporter Ritika Trikha looked to the future in her article.
As taboo as COBOL might be in the ping pong rooms of modern startup-driven culture today, its influence and irreplaceability will result in a spotlight on the dinosaur language again. Businesses must figure out who will maintain their mainframes when COBOL programmers retire in the near future.
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