Roughly 70 percent of the world’s daily business transactions rely on COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language), a 60-year-old programming language.
Even more shocking is that within the constantly changing IT industry, COBOL Has remained relevant for the last six decades; and many experts predict COBOL will remain one of the most in-demand skills in the future.
With over 30 new (and many would say better) programming languages available, you may be asking ‘why COBOL?’ Well, the average person interacts with COBOL 13 times a day, in sectors such as health care, government, finance, insurance, automotive, and banking.
Some of the largest business systems that run COBOL include:
- Healthcare: 60 million patients
- Banking: 95% ATM transactions
- Travel: 96% of the bookings
- Social security: 60 million lines of code
- Point of sale: 80% of all transactions daily
- IRS: 50 million lines of code
History of COBOL
So how did COBOL get started? We’re so glad you asked! Back when computers were first invented, each company used its own programming languages to run its computers. And, well, that got a bit complicated if you wanted to work on more than one brand of computer. Or heaven forbid you’d need different brands of computers to interact with each other.
So in 1959, a group of programmers developed COBOL (COMMON Business Oriented Language) to run on more than one brand of computer. The developers felt it was important to use a programming language that resembled English rather than machine code, which would make it easier to write and read. This language was only intended to be used for a short time before they could develop something better – oh the irony!
National Museum of American History
Grace Hopper, center, leads a team creating COBOL.
Corporations, businesses, and even the government needed a common language to interact with budgets, maintain payrolls, and do all sorts of business processing, so COBOL was quickly adopted by both the private sector and government agencies.
Find out why COBOL remains the cornerstone for many businesses and their core applications, despite critics viewing COBOL as a ‘dinosaur’ programming language.
COBOL is not going away anytime soon...
It’s funny how old things cycle back, isn’t it? If we had written this article a few years ago, the general public may not have recognized the word COBOL. However, COBOL was recently in the news again: When unemployment claims skyrocketed following the lockdown in March 2020, many state governments couldn’t keep up due to their COBOL systems. That in itself is not necessarily an issue, however, there aren’t a whole lot of programmers left who write in COBOL. As we mentioned earlier, COBOL was only supposed to be a Band-Aid on a problem, so many schools stopped teaching COBOL years, if not decades ago.
Why? Simply put, there really hasn’t been another language that can carry out massive batch processes as securely as COBOL. There are other reasons why IT is slow to replace COBOL systems. For instance, COBOL is robust, fast, scalable, able to support large volumes of transactional data, easy to learn, and extremely portable across platforms.
Then again, COBOL is a legacy language, meaning it is written in a format that is no longer used or supported by newer systems. This means companies will either need programmers to serve as a bridge between COBOL code and newer applications, or employ additional programmers that will maintain older software and write new COBOL code. This ancient (by IT standards) language is often stereotyped as a programming dinosaur that was popular in the ’80s, yet despite its critics, we cannot overlook how important and intertwined it has become in our day-to-day routines for consumers and businesses.
This conundrum is what drives many executives to look for a solution, such as replacing their old code. The process, however, is not that simple. Because COBOL has been around for so long, there are still roughly 200 billion lines of code in production that would need to be replaced. It would not only take an extremely long time but cost companies an enormous amount of capital to do! As we said earlier, COBOL syntax is very much like the English language, and is far easier to build upon what already exists.