This ancient programming language is way more common than we all thought

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A 60-year-old programming language understood by fewer and fewer developers underpins many more applications than previously thought, new data suggests.

According to a report from IT modernization company Micro Focus, there are currently more than 800 billion lines of COBOL code in daily use across the globe, roughly three times more than anticipated.

What’s more, almost half of the developers surveyed actually expect the volume of COBOL in their organization to increase over the next twelve months, while a similar proportion say they expect COBOL applications to live on for at least another decade.

COBOL conundrum

The typical narrative surrounding COBOL is that the waning number of developers familiar with the language has the potential to cause significant problems, due to the variety of mission-critical apps it props up in sectors such as government and banking.

For example, COBOL hit the headlines during the pandemic after the governor of New Jersey was forced to put out a call for developers fluent in the language, on which many of the state’s systems still run. Meanwhile, the state of Connecticut found itself unable to handle the influx of unemployment claims with its decades-old COBOL mainframe.

However, despite the fact COBOL has largely gone out of fashion among up-and-coming developers, many businesses have no intention of moving away from the language.

MicroFocus says the preference among most companies (64%) that are reliant on COBOL is to modernize their apps, as opposed to ripping and replacing. Meanwhile, 92% of those surveyed said COBOL will continue to be of strategic importance to their business.

“As organizations look to deliver on IT strategies through modernization and digital transformation initiatives, the findings of the latest COBOL Survey demonstrate the continued importance of COBOL for application modernization and business change,” said Ed Airey, Director of COBOL Product Marketing, Micro Focus”

“The significant volume of COBOL application code in the marketplace represents remarkable value for organisations and requires ongoing investment as part of a larger modernization strategy.  For IT leaders, supporting core business systems, COBOL application modernisation lies at the heart of digital transformation.”

Given MicroFocus earns its living helping companies modernize their COBOL applications, the conclusion of the report is perhaps to be expected. However, the survey does highlight the need for businesses to get ahead of the COBOL question, by putting in place training and recruitment initiatives that minimize the likelihood of a disastrous skills shortage.

Organizations that fail to prepare could well find themselves lumped with a plethora of critical COBOL-based applications, but with no one to maintain them.

Joel Khalili
News and Features Editor

Joel Khalili is the News and Features Editor at TechRadar Pro, covering cybersecurity, data privacy, cloud, AI, blockchain, internet infrastructure, 5G, data storage and computing. He's responsible for curating our news content, as well as commissioning and producing features on the technologies that are transforming the way the world does business.