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COBOL at 60: The legacy and future of the original business language

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Ed Airey, Product Marketing Director for COBOL Solutions , Micro Focus

Sixty years after COBOL's debut, programs written in the programming language are still quietly running some of the world's largest companies. The language has adapted to a changing IT landscape over the decades, and it has been constantly improved upon to incorporate innovations and support new standards, enabling enterprises to modernize while helping the language remain viable.

Behind the scenes, COBOL programs support the average person's day-to-day activities in ways few people realize. Some 95% of ATM swipes rely on COBOL programs, and more than 70% of business process transactions run on the language. More than 220 billion lines of COBOL are in use today, according to Reuters.

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From DoD project to must-have business language

The origins of COBOL, the Common Business-Oriented Language, can be traced to the pioneering work of computing legends Grace Hopper and Jean Sammet in the late 1950s. Created as a US Department of Defense initiative to assist "data processing," the language was defined in 1959, and early versions were adopted by the major hardware manufacturers of the day.

During the proliferation of microprocessor-based computing in the 1980s, COBOL was a must-have technology on any business machine, and vendors such as Micro Focus formed in the mid-'70s to supply the specialist engineering skills and technology platform to provide COBOL compiler products across the industry's leading platforms.

As the language evolved, it built upon the original specifications and met standards set by international standards bodies. Major updates to the standard came out in 1968, 1974, and 1985, and numerous improvements have occurred since. These have introduced incremental improvements to the language itself and its interoperability with new and emerging third-party technologies.

Why COBOL has endured

While COBOL may not receive the same fanfare as more modern languages, a true testament to its enduring value is how heavily it is still used in industries such as retail, healthcare, finance, and government. To understand why organizations continue to use it, consider the following characteristics of the world's first business programming language:

  • Innovation: Companies have continued to invest millions in the highly adaptable language, and there are ongoing efforts to meet the demands of the IT industry's shifting technology landscape. Just think REST/JSON, cloud, containers, JVM, and .NET; COBOL supports them all. For this reason, COBOL remains a genuinely contemporary platform for critical business systems.
  • Heritage: With six decades of history, billions of lines of value, and hundreds of thousands of practitioners, the global COBOL community is supported by ongoing training, continued usage, and a global user community of hundreds of thousands.
  • Portability: One of the original purposes of COBOL was to cross-compile, and it could be deployed wherever needed. COBOL remains the most portable computer language, ideal for supporting hybrid IT, or multi-platform ecosystems.
  • Business-centricity: With arithmetic accuracy to 38 digits, strong data manipulation, SORT capability, high performance, and robust error management, COBOL remains unrivaled, with a proven record of robustness.
  • Readability: Included at the outset, COBOL's ease of use allows for a faster understanding (and debugging) of the language, since it is aligned to an English-like set of syntax and therefore is simpler to read and code than many newer languages.

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What lies ahead

Looking ahead to the next 60 years, we should consider the journey COBOL has already taken. It has adapted and evolved to continue powering the critical applications for vital industries and countless global companies.

While the language is not new by any means, it is known for being a reliable and trusted solution that continues to add value for companies, and it continues to evolve to remain contemporary and viable. This shows that COBOL, like other great ideas, can always adapt and continue its path to staying relevant.

For more on COBOL's history, and the latest developments, watch the "COBOL is 60 webcast," which I co-host with Micro Focus' Derek Britton.

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