50 years on, Cobol still as influential
Much of the technology that underpins today’s business world is linked to an innovation which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Tech&U talks to Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Micro Focus, a legacy modernisation software vendor, about Cobol.
On May 28, 1959, a meeting at the Pentagon laid down the guidelines that would form the basis of Cobol, or Common Business Oriented Language, which had gone on to influence the future of business technology.
Over the following decades, Cobol developed an almost ubiquitous relationship with enterprise IT.
As large firms and government departments increased their reliance on digital information, underpinning the IT infrastructure of virtually every major firm were large Cobol-based applications.
Today, Cobol is everywhere, yet largely unheard of by millions of people who interact with it daily when using the ATM, stopping at traffic lights or buying a product online.
The statistics on Cobol attest to its huge influence on the business world: There are over 220 billion lines of Cobol in existence, a figure which equates to about 80 per cent of the world’s actively used code. There over a million Cobol programmers in the world. There are 200 times as many Cobol transactions that take place each day than Google searches.
Every year, Cobol is responsible for transporting up to 72,000 shipping containers, caring for 60 million patients, processing 80 per cent of point-of-sales transactions and connecting 500 million mobile phone users. It manages train timetables, air traffic control systems, holiday bookings, supermarket stock controls and more.
Simple but versatile
What has made Cobol such a success, despite doomsayers predicting its demise for the past 30 years? The answer: Simplicity.
Ever since the idea was hatched, Cobol aimed to provide a common standard for programmers based on the use of English, simplifying coding for developers and businesses.
Cobol programmers appreciate this, and it offers a better guarantee of employment than almost any other IT specialism.
Cobol’s versatility also has played a part in its longevity. Applications first developed to run on IBM System 700 mainframes are now being readied for Amazon or Microsoft cloud computing platform.
Cobol’s propensity for modernisation is unparalleled. It is not only effective, but also costeffective.
In the current economic climate, modernising Cobol systems is an attractive prospect for chief information officers looking to “do more with less”.
Perhaps Cobol systems dating back decades still exist today because of the huge investment of hours and resources on them. These systems have evolved with business and become crucial corporate assets. Given the competitive advantage these systems provide, they are more than just a cost on the balance sheet.
Put simply, if Cobol systems can continue to perform business-critical tasks efficiently and reliably, there is no reason they may not continue to do so for another 50 years.
Is there no end for Cobol’s supremacy? Can the language that has dominated the last five decades of computing continue to do so for the next 50 years? Having shrugged off the Millennium Bug easily, it would seem the main risk facing Cobol today is training enough professionals to maintain all 220 billion lines.
The need for skills is all the more apparent given that Cobol has reached yet another critical juncture in its evolution. The advent of cloud computing is the latest step the language will have to take if its influence is to continue in the 21st century.
Cobol applications have continually shown their adaptability to new platforms, and the emergence of cloud computing should prove no different. While cloud computing has the potential to change the way IT is delivered, it is the applications that run on its platform which will continue to perform the functions most valuable to businesses.
Despite being written off on countless occasions, Cobol and the applications that run on it continue to play power enterprise computing. From humble beginnings, Cobol has become the code that has defined the digital age, and a world without Cobol would be quite unrecognisable from the one we know today.
With the rate of technological and business changes seemingly increasing by the day, it is remarkable that the technology that underpins the majority of the world’s most important systems is now 50 years old. But to those who work closely with Cobol, this is not surprising.
The longevity of Cobol is a testament to its versatility, reliability and above all, success.