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COBOL: After 60+ Years, the Language Continues to Show Lasting Resilience

By Dick Weisinger

COBOL (the common business-oriented language) was originally designed in the late 1950’s and started to be used commercially in 1960, primarily for business, finance and administrative systems. COBOL is designed to be English-like, imperative, procedural, and portable.

There have been predictions from the 1970’s that COBOL would be replaced by more modern and elegant languages. Edsger W. Dijkstra, a Dutch computer scientist, said in 1975 that “the use of COBOL cripples the mind; its teaching should, therefore, be regarded as a criminal offense.”

In 1981, Grace Hopper, the major author of COBOL, said that “in less than a year there were rumors all over the industry that COBOL was dying.”

Robert Vinaja, Texas A&M San Antonio professor, said that “people keep saying that COBOL is about to die, and — I mean — probably I am going to die before COBOL dies.”

But it hasn’t happened. Now more than 60 years later, it is amazing how often COBOL is still used. The problem is that most Fortune 500 companies are still highly reliant on the use of COBOL. Part of the reason is that there is just so much code that converting it to something more modern takes a lot of time. A project to replace a COBOL system by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia in 2012 was estimated to cost $750 million.

The COBOL skill gap

Derek Britton, global director at Micro Focus, said that “while market sizing is difficult to specify with any accuracy, we do know the number of organizations running COBOL systems today is in the tens of thousands. It is impossible to estimate the tens of millions of end users who interface with COBOL-based applications on a daily basis, but the language’s reliance is clearly seen with its use in 70 percent of global transaction processing systems.”

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