COBOL Language - Touro Graduate School of Technology - TECHSPEC

Is COBOL Really Dead?

Posted by Husnal Walia on May 30, 2018 12:00:00 PM
Husnal Walia

COBOL, a compiled English-like computer programming language, is almost 60 years old. In this rapidly transforming technology world, it would not be logical for any programming language to survive for so many years. Right?

In today’s technology era, the in-demand programming languages are Python, Java, C#, Ruby, PHP, Oracle and SQL. Consequently, there would no demand for “ancient” COBOL. Right?

Programmers are more comfortable using static typing Java or dynamic typing Python. COBOL is difficult to use because it has strong typing rules and is more difficult to parse. As a result, big corporations would no longer be interested in COBOL. Right?


COBOL is everywhere.

COBOL has always been and continues to be a huge part of our lives. Yet, most of us have never heard of it. So how is COBOL used everywhere on a daily basis?

Here are a few examples to help you understand the longevity and viability of COBOL:

  • When we shop, many of us use credit cards for payment. COBOL helps your bank’s mainframe server determine whether your credit card is valid or not. COBOL is also used to transfer the funds from your account to the vendor’s account after determining that funds are available.
  • When booking a flight for business or for vacation, COBOL helps the server provide you with information like flight schedules, current prices, availability of seats, and much more.
  • If you need to see a doctor, COBOL helps doctors review and maintain your medical history, and it determines your available insurance coverage.
  • When a police officer pulls you over while driving, COBOL helps the officer with your background check.
  • Most government offices have computer systems which are mainframe-based and use COBOL.
  • Even the courts use mainframes and COBOL daily to deal with case-related information.
  • The shipping industry also depends on the mainframe and COBOL for its cargo dealings.
  • Major product distributors rely on mainframe computing and COBOL to fill your orders.
  • Mobile carriers are also dependent on the mainframe and COBOL to support their network.

Think of any transaction in your daily life and you will find a mainframe at the back-end fulfilling your request with the help of COBOL programming.

To appreciate the impact of COBOL in your life, all you would need to do is live one day without COBOL. You would quickly realize how archaic and difficult life has become. I am sure you must be thinking, “How can an old language like COBOL still exist and be so important, and yet, no one knows about it?”

Let’s start with what exactly COBOL is. COBOL is an acronym for Common Business-Oriented Language which was invented from 1959 to 1961 by a small team of programmers led by Dr. Grace Murray Hopper. COBOL was the first software programming language that used English words, in becoming user-friendly for business data processing. COBOL proved to be very beneficial to the federal, state and local governments, and for processing the private sector’s businesses. Consequently, it was quickly adopted as the “go-to” programming language.

Existence of COBOL in today’s world:

  • The average American still interacts with a COBOL program 13 times a day.
  • There are approximately 220 billion lines of COBOL code in use.
  • Nearly 5 billion lines of new COBOL code are added to live systems every year.

As per Reuters, even today, 95% of debit card transactions are controlled by COBOL programs. The Federal Government still relies on COBOL-based mainframe systems. According to The Future of COBOL Applications 2017 Survey by MicroFocus, 80% of the business transactions around the world run on COBOL. In addition, 90% of all global financial transactions are processed using COBOL. The financial industry has approximately 3 trillion dollars of daily transactions which flow through COBOL programs.

Do we have enough programmers to maintain all of the existing COBOL code?

Seventy percent of COBOL developers are in the age range of 35 to 55 years old, with most closer to 55. In general, COBOL programmers are older and are approaching or have reached retirement age. COBOL is not taught by many institutions because students are not interested in learning a legacy coding language. Corporations today are desperate to find new talent who can help maintain their COBOL code. However, with the shortage of COBOL developers, companies are relying on retirees to help fix coding issues and maintain the COBOL code.

Why not switch to the 4th or 5th generation programming languages like JAVA?

Business applications have significantly developed over time. Converting code is an on-going project that demands a great deal of time to understand each program, and to obtain its desired output, along with ensuring efficient program performance. While small corporations successfully migrated from COBOL to JAVA, it became apparent that it was much more difficult and cost prohibitive for large corporations to convert their code.

There is also the fear that the new programs will not be as efficient or not process the transactions effectively. Converting thousands of lines of COBOL code that is still working in complex programs is a daunting project and would not be cost effective.

It is estimated that it would take a huge workforce 20 years to convert all of the existing COBOL based programs. This effort would be very expensive. In the end, you would have the same functionality that exists today. As a result, COBOL seems to be here for the foreseeable future and provides an excellent career opportunity for those students who are interested in a career in computer programming.


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