COBOL: going strong after 60 years

COBOL: still disruptive after 60 years
(Image credit: Startup Stock Photos / Pixabay)
About the author

Derek Britton is product director at Micro Focus.

"We should note the force, effect, and consequences of […] three discoveries the ancients didn't know. [They] have changed the whole aspect and state of things throughout the world."

Francis Bacon was talking about printing, gunpowder, and the nautical compass. He was right in that these were all game-changing creations, even if he was a little verbose in his description of what they meant to everyday life. Today, we might call them disruptive technologies.

In truth, before the advent of the printing press he wouldn’t have had access to much in the way of a widely understood vernacular at all. That’s because before the advent of Caxton’s printing press in the fifteenth century there was no ‘English Language’ as such. 

Caxton was a technician rather than a writer, and adopted the so-called King’s English out of necessity to avoid language standardization dilemmas. The point is that this disruptive technology – Caxton’s printing press – was the catalyst behind the development of a national and, later, an international language.

History repeats

COBOL (Common Business-Orientated Language) was also born of necessity, and designed for a specific purpose. Created as part of a US Department of Defence initiative to assist data processing, computer manufacturers seized on it, which prompted widespread adoption. Since then, its readability, simplicity and repeatability has made it indispensable for those who use it.

Like the English language, there is a degree of ubiquity to COBOL. We use COBOL every day and it will continue to touch our lives, whether we know it or not. Banking, insurance, logistics, retail, government – practically any time you interact with any of those industries, you’re talking to a COBOL app. 

Built for the business world of the late 50’s, COBOL has since adapted and expanded just as English has. It has been changed to meet new demands and support innovative new technologies, and today it still runs everything from old school batch processes to back office support for funky mobile apps. 

Many of the world's largest corporations still speak fluent COBOL, where it excels at executing large-scale batch and transaction processing operations on mainframes. Reuters has pointed out how important the banks’ favorite language is to the financial industry, where COBOL systems handle an estimated $3 trillion in daily commerce. The language underpins deposit accounts, card networks, ATMs, mortgage servicing, loan ledgers and other services. 

But languages must be robust to survive and adaptable to thrive. And COBOL – known for its scalability, performance and mathematical accuracy – can also be a catalyst for IT transformation

Thinking of replacing your COBOL?

Good luck with that. COBOL is as pervasive as it is adaptable, and attempts to replace it have had mixed results at best. For many IT organisations, COBOL-based core business systems are their beating heart – and no-one would suggest a heart transplant lightly. 

Instead, transforming the systems hosting these processes can create a business ready to thrive in a digital world, through a comprehensive solution across three key pillars of modernization: application, process, and infrastructure. The key words are low risk and low cost.

Mobile apps and other new tools are written in modern languages that need to work seamlessly with trusted underlying IT systems – in this case a language that dates back to when Harold Macmillan was prime minister. 

Modernisation is old: discuss

Modernisation is nothing new. Anyone working with the new generation of digital printing – even those still running 10-colour large format printers – would probably struggle to recognise Caxton’s museum piece. Nonetheless, these disruptive technologies work to the same basic principles of applying ink to paper. The link from contemporary functionality, to the technology that created a legend, endures.

Bridging the gap between established (COBOL) and newer (digital) can be done. The key is in retaining the tried, tested, durable fundamentals and future proofing them for tomorrow’s requirements.

Industry improvements have enabled a new generation of COBOL apps, built using modern IDE tools for editing, as well as support for COBOL apps running on mainframes or other servers, or within cloud infrastructure, such as on Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. Contemporary COBOL has a flexibility that puts it at the fingertips of a broader church of programmers, while giving us, as consumers, the functionality we demand.

COBOL at 120?

Only those living with a King Canute level of denial would argue that COBOL alone is the future. But the language has corporate supporters, who recognize the ongoing value of COBOL, and support its future by enhancing and augmenting the core language with significant R&D money. 

COBOL does not, however, belong to them. COBOL’s biggest friends are the businesses and programmers who work with the language every day, shaping its future by demanding progress in the shape of consumer-focused innovation.

Neither English nor COBOL are going to be supplanted any time soon. So rather than defining what English – and COBOL –  is now, and closing the door to change, the focus is on adapting to and working with, what we have. While the future is, famously, not yet written, for technology there is only one language resilient enough to write it.


Derek Britton is product director at Micro Focus.

Derek Britton

Derek Britton is product director at Micro Focus.

He is a technology marketing leader with 30 years experience covering all functions in technology B2B go-to-market, including: - Product Marketing - conceiving, branding, promoting, launching enterprise software products - Sales Enablement - establishing corporate facility for sales training of hundreds - Product Management - product ownership, launch planning and execution - Company spokesperson - Writer/speaker via IT media & major industry events (SHARE, Gartner, AWS) - Prolific social media activist and blogger